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Sunday, May 30, 2010


Giles Whittell reviews the nonfiction master's latest in The Sunday Times.

A number of years ago, I met Sebastian Junger -- not that he would know me from a bar of soap, as the saying goes.  It was a very brief encounter in a bookstore in Maine.  He was on the way out of the store after promoting his book, and I was on the way in, to promote mine.  A mutual friend introduced us.  Mr. Junger looked haggard and exhausted, as if he had trudged away from a war zone (rather like his picture, above).  That, I learned, is what intensive book tours do to you.  "I have to give it my best shot," he said (or words to that effect).  "It will never happen again."

The book, of course, was The Perfect Storm.  Not only did he introduce the phrase "perfect storm" to the wider language, but his sales created a perfect storm on the bestseller lists. Junger is a very nice person.  With money from the book, he created a foundation to give educational opportunities to the children of those who make their living on the sea:  The Perfect Storm Foundation.

Junger is also a man who enjoys taking risks.  His specialty is hunting out the men who make their living in dangerous ways, sharing their hazardous existence for a while, and then writing in honour of their work.  His epic story of the ordeal of a Gloucester fishing schooner was supposed to be just one of several chapters in a collection of these tales, but his agent was shrewd enough to see it as a book in itself.   The rest of the stories were published as Fire, which is a nail-biting series of adventures, including fighting forest fires, witnessing the horrors of Kosovo, investigating the blood diamond business, and escaping guerrillas in Kashmir. The final chapter is a 2001 interview with Ahmad Shah Massoud, legendary fighter during the Russian occupation in Afghanistan.  In many ways it is a prequel to Junger's latest book, War.

"Sebastian Junger spent a year with US troops in the most violent valley in Afghanistan," begins the Sunday Times review.  This cleft in the heart of inhospitable terrain was Restrepo, a fifteen-man outpost named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.  Until the troops pulled out in April, it was one of the most dangerous postings in the US military.  What is inspiring about this blood-drenched, compelling book is the fierce camaraderie of the young soldiers -- fifteen men from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who depended on each other every second of every day to stay alive.

Characteristically, Junger has set up a web site in honor of these men and the film, Restrepo, that has been made about them.  Take a look.  Whatever your feelings about the war in Afghanistan, you come way feeling humble.

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