When Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air came out in 1997--within a month of each other, as it happened--we rediscovered the joy of reading about very bad things happening to real people, preferably in exotic locales. Maybe it's because we never feel quite so warm and comfy in our poolside deck chairs, fruity cocktail in hand, as when we're reading a true-life yarn about somebody else drowning or freezing to death or doing both simultaneously.
The heroes of Robert Kurson's Shadow Divers (Random House; 375 pages) go to very great lengths, and even greater depths, to do precisely that. Their story began in 1991 when Bill Nagle, captain of a charter boat catering to scuba divers, got wind of an unexplored shipwreck 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. He quickly rounded up a dirty dozen of recreational divers, including a Vietnam veteran named John Chatterton, and sailed out for a look-see. A quick underwater peek revealed that the wreck was, unbelievably, a World War II--vintage German U-boat, nestled on the ocean floor. Nobody--not the Navy, not the historians, not even the few surviving German U-boat captains--knew what it was doing there.
The submarine lay in 230 ft. of water, which is about as deep as a very experienced shipwreck diver can safely go. But when shipwreck divers say safe, they mean what other people mean when they say insanely dangerous. Drowning is the least of it; many divers are found dead with full tanks of air on their backs. Other hazards include the bends--brought on by ascending from the depths too rapidly--unreliable equipment, panicky colleagues grabbing another diver's air supply, collapsing shipwrecks and nitrogen narcosis, a state of mental impairment that afflicts divers below 70 ft. or so. Kurson takes us into the gossipy, cliquey subculture of hard-core wreck divers, men who can come to blows over a chipped teacup from a sunken cruise ship. He also expends a fair amount of ink trying to explain why anybody would risk so much for so little. The answer boils down to a desire to explore the shadowy depths of one's inner being, or something like that, but whatever. It's summertime; let's get to the good stuff.
The team, led by the intrepid Chatterton, began to explore the mystery U-boat. At that depth they could stay down for just minutes at a time, so they had to work methodically, room by room, dive by dive. The wreck began gobbling them up just as methodically: the first to die was an affable hobbyist named Steve Feldman, who lost consciousness and drowned. Others didn't go as peacefully, but with each death the divers only became more determined.
Shadow Divers becomes an underwater detective story. The divers go to excruciating lengths to recover any artifact--a shoe, a plaque, a table knife with a name scratched in it--that might yield the secret of the sub's demise. It's also a midlife-crisis fable about a bunch of ordinary Joes in their 30s and 40s looking for something other than their crumbling marriages and pedestrian day jobs to give their lives meaning and focus. They just happen to find it at the bottom of the ocean.