The Boston Phoenix
August 21 - 28, 1997


Eye of the storm

Reality was a friend of Sebastian Junger's until two weeks ago, when the New York Observer printed a painstaking audit of errors that made their way into his surprise bestseller The Perfect Storm. We visit him on Cape Cod, where he is trying to recall what life was like before he was a media darling. Is this dreamboat taking on water?

by Ellen Barry

Something primal drives Sebastian Junger to surf in rough January seas, when you can get pulled under for long enough to think you are drowning and burst to the surface with your lungs sucking salt water. These needs are not satisfied by a book tour.

"This is what my life is like now," says Junger, 35, who is leaning back in his chair, bare-chested, barefoot, with a tan of a depth rare even among lesser literary sensations. He gives this example from a recent blitz of press appearances. "I sat in the little makeup chair [on the set of Good Morning America] and realized that I hadn't even stepped into a shower in the last 24 hours. I said to the woman, `I've got to tell you, the makeup from last night is still on me.' That's what my life is like now."

Makeup chairs are not his scene. What Junger likes -- as he has explained a thousand times since The Perfect Storm hit the bestseller lists and he became a spokesman for the strenuous life -- is the moment when you know you could go under. At that moment, it doesn't matter what suburb you grew up in (Belmont), or what the reviews say ("worthy of William Shawn's New Yorker"), or who options the movie rights (Warner Brothers). It also doesn't matter whether you are the target of a vituperative front-page attack in the New York Observer, where reporter Warren St. John last week reinterviewed certain of Junger's sources and labeled the book "A Fish Story Awash in Errors."

Nonfiction brought the book into this world, and nonfiction could take it out. The Perfect Storm, a true story about a Gloucester fishing boat called the Andrea Gail that went down in the Halloween Gale of 1991, was supposed to be "a minor book," Junger says, with regional interest among commercial fishermen -- who aren't, at any rate, big buyers of hardcover literary non-fiction. But Junger's book -- which builds up to a numbing chapter about what it feels like to drown -- hit a market ravenous for true stories.

The Perfect Storm has just supplanted Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air to settle into the number two spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and Junger sold the paperback rights to HarperCollins for $1.2 million, and the movie rights to Spring Creek Productions for a reported $500,000. In a highbrow market that embraced Kathryn Harrison's incest memoir and Caroline Knapp's drinking memoir, The Perfect Storm reeked of authenticity -- as did Mr. Junger, a part-time high climber for a tree-removal company who appeared in publicity shots with a chainsaw. Junger speaks with the eloquence of a onetime anthropology major about the male longing for danger. It's a longing he is familiar with.

"I grew up in the suburbs, I went to private school," he told me. "You feel emasculated by that kind of background when you look at a man who has been in 50-foot seas and come back with a weird look in his eyes."

But there would be no 50-foot seas for Junger. Instead came Observer scribe Warren St. John, who printed a laundry list of reporting errors (one major character's name was misspelled throughout book, for instance) and two more-substantive objections: the two men who came off as most culpable, Bob Brown and Ray Leonard, both said Junger "let a good story get in the way of the facts." The author never interviewed Leonard, who is portrayed as an irresponsible risk-taker, in part because he says he "had too many characters in the book." And Brown complained that The Perfect Storm's analysis of ship stability contained major errors -- an assertion that Junger contests, saying his facts were taken from court depositions.

The complaints -- coming, as they do, from two deeply interested parties -- will likely diffuse into the odd spectacle of Manhattan journalists debating the proper storage of fuel tanks on a 72-foot steel-hulled swordfisherman. In the publishing world, Junger's reputation will probably not suffer. A larger question is whether the hot-ticket category of "literary journalism" -- with its unclear attributions -- is sometimes too literary to be called journalism at all. Junger's editor at W.W. Norton, who was quoted in the Observer story, said her primary gauge of accuracy has nothing at all to do with fact-checking: the questions she asks are "Is there internal coherence? Does the author's version of the events make sense?"

It's not just Junger coming under the microscope. Questions about authenticity -- rarely heard when Truman Capote pioneered the genre with his 1966 book In Cold Blood, the partially fictionalized account of a Kansas murder case -- are now cropping up in response to nonfiction sensations as diverse as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Robert Reich's Locked in the Cabinet. Did those conversations really happen? How true is nonfiction, anyway? What kind of liberties can you take with real lives?

So Sebastian Junger is having the ultimate celebrity experience: he's found himself at the center of a controversy. He's already aired his psyche liberally and posed for a thousand cheesecake publicity shots, and now the klieg lights have swung around to scrutinize the choices he made as a journalist -- the things he put in, the things he left out, the way people turned into characters. He doesn't like it. We talked to him three days after the Observer article came out. He was feeling, as he put it, "overexamined."

Q: Were you surprised by the attention?

A: It wasn't supposed to be a big book -- not a Book in capital letters, you know. They thought they'd sell 10,000 copies. I didn't even think I could finish it, because the story, journalistically, looked so impossible: a nonfiction book about a boat that disappears. You're talking about Gloucester. It didn't have "bestseller" written on it. I didn't want to invent dialogue or fictionalize or do any of the stuff that readers love. I was sure I was condemned to write a journalistically interesting book that just wouldn't fly. It would be too heavy. The topic is too weird and idiosyncratic. It's all the things that kill books.

Q: When did you realize what was happening?

A: I sold the movie rights last October. That was the first time I really knew. And then it really just started snowballing. By the time the publishing date came around, it was just huge, and now compared to May it's huge. Every month it's 10 times bigger than it should have been. I didn't realize until very late that I had anything on my hands. Neither did the publisher.

Q: Did you think the Observer story was fair?

A: No, of course not. Every single thing he said in there I countered, and nothing I countered with got in. [Observer reporter Warren St. John] totally had an article he wanted to write. He was totally selective with the information he used. It really pissed me off. . . . Ray Leonard is understandably upset by the book, but everything [crew member] Karen Stimpson said was corroborated by the Coast Guard. Everything and more. . . . You can make a case for anything if you're selective. [St. John] was really convinced that Leonard was right, and after three hours it got really tiresome. He would say, "Oh, no, you needed that to have a good plot," and I'd say "No, I'm not writing a novel. I'm not thinking in terms of a plot. I think you are."

Q: But isn't that what journalists do sometimes?

A: Well, they're selective, inevitably. It's like the justice system. Inevitably, it's not objective. But he's saying, "You need a villain. You need Bob Brown and Ray Leonard." And I said, "Well, if I needed a villain, I know much worse stuff about both these guys. Why didn't I put that in?" The Coast Guard told me [Leonard] was drunk in the [rescue] helicopter. If I wanted to make him a bad guy, don't you think I would put that in? It's not like I particularly need to vilify Bob Brown. He actually was very nice to me. He treated me very well. So I didn't want him to feel stabbed in the back.

Q: Is [the criticism] going to change the way you work in the future?

A: When I first found out there was anything wrong, I was so upset, I wished I had never written the book. A reader's copy had gone down to Gloucester, and someone sent it to Peter Anastas, who's sort of the local town historian. He said, Listen, this is an incredible book. Finally, someone wrote the right book about Gloucester. But listen, for the next edition, you got this street name wrong, and this and this. There were 12 things, and a lot of them were things where someone would tell me something and I wouldn't check it -- he sounded authoritative and I didn't have time to check it.

Q: The difference is when you're working on a newspaper story, you attribute statements to particular sources. But there's not much attribution in your book.

A: Right, because it bogs it down. Newspaper articles aren't literature. And I'm glad they're not. It would take forever to get through the New York Times. With books, you have to make those decisions.

Q: Did you feel you had to make a decision as to whether the Andrea Gail was seaworthy?

A: No.

Q: You left it intentionally ambiguous.

A: Yeah. And it wasn't seaworthy. Its reputation was that it was an unsafe boat and had no business being out there. And I never said that. There's a whole chapter about the boat. I put that stuff in there because it was an important legal issue. . . . Any boat that size would have gone down in those conditions. A 72-foot boat in 70-foot breaking waves. It's an impossibility for a boat to survive that. They could have gone down in [conditions half that bad]. And you know, if I had wanted to set up Bob Brown as a villain, I could have done a much better job at it. He said outrageous things to me when I first met him. The six guys who died on the boat, he said "Oh, those scumbags, they didn't even have life insurance." And he said to someone else, "Losing that boat was the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of [my] business," because he felt that the boat wasn't doing that well. I mean, that is harsh. You're talking about six guys who died working for you. To talk about them that way is harsh.

Q: Do you feel like the book was accurate, by and large?

A: Of course. Everyone I've talked to who's in the business thinks so. In fact, the only people who don't think so are people who live and work at desks in New York City. Seriously, I haven't met one person who works in the industry who has the slightest problem with it. One guy came up to me and said, "If you ever question the value of what you've done, just think of it like this: I've been out in 30-, 40-foot seas thinking I was never going to get out alive. I'm not an educated man, and I can't tell people what that's like, but you told them. Thank you." So whose approval do I want? Warren St. John's? Or that guy's? I mean, I just feel like he's missing the whole point of writing, which is to capture a deeper truth.

Q: Do fishermen talk about drowning?

A: No. Too scary, I imagine. And they don't talk about what it's like out there at all. You say, Hey, does it get pretty rough out there? And they won't say anything. It's like they'll talk about it with other fishermen, but as a non-fisherman, you don't really deserve to hear it. It's like guys coming back from Vietnam -- you can't possibly talk about it if you've never been out there.

Q: Did you ever become outraged at the state the Andrea Gail was in?

A: No. I mean, she was like every other boat.

Q: But she had a bad reputation?

A: Some thought so. But there's a bunch of boats that do. I mean, they're rustbuckets, all of them. All that eyeball engineering. And I said that. I basically included the Andrea Gail in the majority of the ships in the fleet.

Q: And yet, if the odds for getting hurt in a factory were that high, they'd shut it down. Do you think this is an industry like any other?

A: I think the government plays a little faster and looser with the fishing business because it's just more autonomous for some reason. These guys are choosing to go out there. It's not quite like Russian roulette, but it's a little like that. You want to go to the Grand Banks in October or November, that's your problem. . . . These fishermen are sort of fatalistic. They don't have a lot of time and money. They work really hard. They don't want someone from the Coast Guard Academy telling them how to put on a life vest. I think all this stuff is good. Safety regulations are ultimately going to save lives. But I can see where the fishermen are coming from. They're like, "Listen, this is our business. It's a tough job. We're not killing anyone else."

Q: Would you do it?

A: Fish for a living? No, it's too hard.

Q: If America knows how dangerous the world of fishing really is, will that change the world of fishing?

A: No. The only thing that will change the world of fishing is the fish running out.

In Gloucester, a local storm made good

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry[a]
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