Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Storm Trooper

By Sam Jemielity

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  Storms on the ocean can create what mariners call "a rogue wave." A huge wall of water, it rises so steeply that the trough in front has been described as "a hole in the ocean." Such a wave, Sebastian Junger writes in "The Perfect Storm," can break the back of a ship; such a wave likely caused the sinking of the swordfish boat Andrea Gale and her six-man crew off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1991.

But the hole in the ocean also left a hole in the story of the Andrea Gale. "In a way, there's no story," Junger says. "There's a big hole in the middle of the story, because no one can ever know what happened to that boat. As soon as they leave Gloucester, there's almost no storyline. There's no dialogue, there's no thoughts; it's all conjecture. There's a few little islands of information throughout that month [that the Andrea Gale was out to sea]. And the rest is just... nothing."

From such inauspicious beginnings, Junger crafted a book that has spent thirty-three weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The absence of survivors didn't deter the 36-year-old freelance journalist. "Six men died," he says, "and I wanted to explain in as much detail as possible how it probably happened. If they died in a big storm, I wanna know how storms work. If the boat rolled over, I wanna know why boats roll over. And if the waves were a hundred feet out there, I want to know how a hundred-foot wave is generated." It's these details, along with extensive interviews of friends, family and the dead sailors' fellow swordfishermen, that make "The Perfect Storm" such a gripping story (the film rights have been optioned by Warner Bros.). For example, Junger's account of the physiological and psychological reactions of drowning victims can have readers gasping for breath.

Junger's interest in the fate of six swordfisherman germinated out of his own experience at dangerous jobs. He worked as a journalist in Bosnia for six months, and he also worked as a high-climber for a tree-cutting company. When the Nor'easter of 1991 hit, Junger was recuperating from a tree-cutting accident. "I was cutting underneath me one-handed," he recalls, "which is a stupid thing to do. The tip of the saw hit the tree, and it jumped up into my leg. It was more destructive than painful."

As he tells this tale, Junger is destroying a stack of blueberry pancakes at the Hotel Intercontinental dining room. He's in Chicago on the second leg of his publicity tour, worn out from having to finish off two articles (one for The New York Times Magazine, another for This Old House magazine) at a much less leisurely pace than he'd anticipated.

The incredible response to "The Perfect Storm" has turned the square-jawed author into a reluctant celebrity; People magazine put him in the "Sexiest Man" issue, and he made an appearance on Oprah. In person, he's more down to earth than you'd expect from the beefcake promo shot on his dustjacket. He has the lithe build of a soccer-player, a sport he played at Wesleyan College. His deep voice often breaks into laughter, often at his own foibles; his eyes are striking, but not piercing or intrusive.

The son of an Austrian-born physicist dad and an English-Irish-Scottish artist mom learned young to value his "creative qualities as a human being." He inherited a sense of being an outsider. When he was a kid, his friends had a "mini-stock exchange" of baseball trading cards. "I had a few baseball cards," Junger recalls. "But my father is European. He never played baseball with me. I tried to get in on this group. This kid -- he's a photographer now -- he goes, 'Hey Sebastian, you're not allowed to have baseball cards.' And I'm like, god, that sonofabitch, that's exactly what I'm thinking. But I think that feeling of not quite being included contributed to me as a writer." It helped Junger work up the guts to head into swordfishing bars in Gloucester, explain his ignorance of the trade, and get the facts he needed to tell the story of the Andrea Gale. Junger dedicates "The Perfect Storm" to his dad, "who first introduced me to the sea."

Compared to suburban dads, Junger might seem extreme, but he downplays the risks he faces. "I'm somewhere in the spectrum of risk-taking, but I'm nowhere near the top. Other journalists have done much more outrageous things." Still, Junger has spent time as a war correspondent (he has an article in the current Men's Journal on bulletproof vests, a standard fashion accessory in Bosnia); he profiled smoke jumpers, forest fire fighters who parachute into a blaze; and he's done stories on offshore drilling and -- for Outside -- the last whale harpooner. Without going into too much detail, he hints that his next story might involve a "kid in the Navy who had a psychotic break and murdered his parents with an axe." Psychological extremes are just as interesting to Junger as extreme jobs. "I'm always going to write about people on the edge of something."

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