Review of A StormToo Soon by Michael Tougias
Don't Expect TooMuch
Michael Tougias'sbook A Storm Too Soon is a true story of rescues after a hurricane-like stormsinks three sailboats. Having read two earlier maritime true story narrativesby Tougias, I was eagerly looking forward to this book. Most of us sailors doenjoy reading about - rather than experiencing - storms at sea, perhaps mostlyfor the drama of the story but also to learn more about sailing when caught ina storm: what we can learn from others.
The book'ssubtitle, "A True Story of Disaster, Survival, and an IncredibleRescue," says it all, and who could want more from a book?
So it was that Iexcitedly sat down and started reading - but before 30 minutes passed I wasgrowing doubtful, then slowly becoming irritated, even angry at times, andultimately disappointed. This can't be explained in just a sentence - read on.
Michael J. Tougias
A Storm Too Soon
214 pages, paperback
What It's About?
In early summer2007, before the start of hurricane season, a weather system over the EastCoast and Gulf Stream roughly between the mid-Atlantic Seaboard and Bermudablew up into an unforecast monster.
Of the threesailboats caught in it, one disappeared entirely, while the crew of the secondwas rescued from the boat as it slowly sank from damage. The third sailboatsank more slowly after being shaken by the storm. The three men eventuallyabandoned this ship to their life raft, in which they spent many hours beforebeing rescued. The book is mostly about the ordeal of these three men.
Tougias, aprofessional writer (and self-admittedly not much of a sailor), does verydetailed research, so we don't doubt the overall veracity of the story, and wegain from reading lots of little interesting side stories about the sea,weather, and various technical matters.
He is also apracticed storyteller, knowing how to build suspense and drama - and able tostring effective sentences along to keep us turning pages without having tothink much. He also researches the people in his true stories, and afterdetailed interviews is able to make theirs a great human story as well.
So what's not tolike?
A Storm Too Soonmay hit the bestseller list and have lots of adjectives like"harrowing" and "riveting" used by reviewers - and no doubtmany, but certainly not all, non-sailor readers will be swept off their feet.But I'm reviewing the book for a sailing audience and thus have a differenttake.
In a note at theend of the book Tougias says, "I'm writing for the general public, and Iwant the story to be character-driven rather than focusing too much on theinner workings of the Coast Guard or of sailing. My primary goal when writingis to keep the book fast-paced...."
I in fact do seehim driven by that goal, though unfortunately it seems to have risen to a feverpitch that can rapidly burn out the reader. I am talking entirely about hiswriting technique here - not the true story itself. Those three men wentthrough hell, and I'm not trying to minimize that in any way. But Tougias,having established the hell in the first few pages, has desperately to keepmaking it more and more hellish as he goes along in order to keep building thetension. Here are just a few examples of how the book is so overwritten fordramatic effect that, for this sailor at least, it ends up losingverisimilitude.
More than a dozenpeople in the story say the waves were bigger than anything they'd ever seen.More than a hundred times Tougias uses the literary technique of personifyingthe sea and storm to make it seem an evil force personally intent on killingthese men - and a wearying, weak technique it becomes. Whenever the true storyitself slows down a notch, such as when the men are listlessly waiting in theraft, he invariably introduces some new terrifying thing to keep the readerworried and turning pages. Having exhausted his hyperboles for theirexperiences as the raft turns over and their fears of drowning and not beingfound and everything else, he needs a new terror to keep going - wait, I know,sharks! So we read about how sharks can attack a life raft! Wow, here's a sidestory where one actually did! Wow, these men must have been terrified of beingeaten alive!
And on - wow, willthe helicopter run out of fuel before they're all saved! Will the rescueswimmer be too weak after vomiting up seawater! Will the captain die from hisbroken ribs! And oh, did I also mention that they're already desperately closeto death from dehydration! (Meanwhile, while they are said to"parched" because they have no water in the raft for these few hours,we have constant descriptions of the rain coming down in great deluges - hmm,no one ever raised an open mouth to the rain?)
You see my point.Tougias is simply pushing so hard, trying on almost every page to raise theterror to new heights, that the story exhausts itself and the reader may evenbecome skeptical. He could use the same techniques to make a walk to the cornerstore fraught with peril: Muggers (side stories and statistics!) and thatstranger over there! Sidewalk cracks can trip you! Cholesterol clotting yourarteries and threatening heart attack any second now! Methinks the author dothprotest too much....
Finally, it remindedme of the famous last scene in the movie of The Perfect Storm, where the70-foot-ish trawler steams up the face of that last wave for about 5 minutes. Iremember my young daughter, as horrified as a body could be, afterwards askingme if the ocean was really like that. In answer, we studied the movie poster inthe theater lobby, showing the boat fighting up that huge wave which to scalewith the boat would have been at least 500 feet high. So I could smile to mydaughter and say truthfully, no, the ocean isn't really like that.
Remember when theRobert Redford movie All Is Lost first came out and all the big newspapercritics raved about how great it was - and then all the sailors raved about howunrealistic it was? I expect a similar dichotomy with A Storm Too Soon. And nowI'm a little worried about his next book coming out soon, about the sinking ofthe tall ship Bounty - which he seems to have written simultaneously with thisone, perhaps in a rush to be the first big book out on the subject?