First there was Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's personal account of a trip to Mt. Everest gone tragically bad. Then came The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's recreation of the last voyage of the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail. These books (among many others) make up the increasingly popular nonfiction genre of "true-life-adventures-that-go-bad-when-Mother-Nature-says-so."
Now you can add Shadow Divers to the list -- in fact, put it at the top, because it's the best of the bunch. Instead of depicting humans clinging to life at the top of the world, or in a tiny boat facing a massive storm, it's about deep-wreck divers, who get their kicks at 200 feet below the ocean's surface. But this story has the added dimension of mystery, because it revolves around the discovery of a previously unknown German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.
Robert Kurson, a contributing editor at Esquire, follows two of the best deep-wreck divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. The sport is highly technical -- and highly deadly. At such depths, a lot can go wrong and often does: Three divers die at the U-boat wreck site. Despite the risks, Chatterton and Kohler continue researching the wreck for six years, diving into it to discover the identity of the U-Who, as they start calling it.
Kurson's writing style hearkens back to Hemingway with its staccato sentences and macho romanticism. These divers are as heroic, Kurson's spare prose argues, as were the mysterious U-boat's crew members. The combination of an energetic writing style and exhaustive research -- Kurson has a law degree from Harvard -- makes for a riveting read. Kurson's passages on Chatterton's tours of duty in Vietnam put you into wartime, as do his accounts of the doomed submarine's final known moments.
For deep-wreck divers, a U-boat is the sport's holy grail. For writers, a story like Shadow Divers is the same deal. Junger and Krakauer may have stumbled upon the same kinds of stories -- but when World War II emerges from the murky depths, Kurson's tale takes on even deeper meaning than Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm.