The Perfect Sell

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

The Perfect Sell

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Adventure books have gone so mainstream over the last two years that even your dentist can debate the merits of Anatoli Boukreev's oxygen-deprived exploits on Everest in 1996. And, ever intent on flogging a trend, the publishing industry shows no signs of flagging. Been in a killer storm lately? Start writing. Perhaps you were almost drowned at sea? A book contract is sure to follow. Of course, it's not all bunk. Many of this summer's proliferating page-turners are gripping accounts of heroism and grit, serious examinations of the high costs of risk and the unharnessed fury of nature. But they also testify to the unharnessed marketing of adventure writing, which has attained Force Ten velocity.

"I see no sign that people are beginning to tire of the subject," writes British filmmaker Matt Dickinson in The Other Side of Everest: Climbing the North Face Through the Killer Storm (Times, $23). "In my Everest documentary Summit Fever, I had just 47 minutes," points out the novice climber who summited from the Tibetan side. "In this book I have your (hopefully) undivided attention for over 200 pages!" Meanwhile, Danish climber Lene Gammelgaard, a member of the late Scott Fischer's ill-fated Mountain Madness team, adds to the crowded Everest bookshelf with Climbing High: A Woman's Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy (Seal Press, $25), a peppy combination of Into Thin Air and The Power of Positive Thinking. The publication of Climbing High in Europe has already conferred a measure of fame on the psychotherapist and globe-trotting adventuress. "A gift in several ways," she writes, "but also limiting to the wild animal I am genetically."

The Everest tragedy of the seas was the Southern Ocean storm that hit the 1996 Vend‰e Globe around-the-world sailing race. British sailor Pete Goss's white-knuckle account of his heroic rescue of Frenchman Raphael Dinelli, Close to the Wind: An Extraordinary Story of Triumph over Adversity (Carroll & Graf, $25), is humbly told, as if to the lads back at the pub, yet shamelessly billed as "the British best-seller and incredible true-life adventure with all the terror of The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air." Canadian Derek Lundy's report on the same race is a bit more detachedùhe followed it via the Internetùbut his Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World's Most Dangerous Waters (Algonquin, $23) goes beyond the events at hand to explore our fascination with the sea and, as he quotes Melville, "the tiger heart that pants beneath it."

When it comes to maritime disaster though, just about any mishap will do, as long as "six-story waves" are involved. Next month, Pocket Books is rushing to publish Knockdown: A True Story of Sailors and the Sea ($24), macho writer Martin Dugard's saga of the monster storm that wiped out many of the boats in the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Challenge. (Vanity Fair recently jumped into the deadly-adventure sweepstakes with its own feature on the same tragedy.) And Atlantic Monthly Press is contributing Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss ($23), Gordon Chaplin's antiheroic account of the Marshall Islands typhoon that drowned his lover as he helplessly watched.

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But not all the new sea yarns require a storm. If you are a commercial fisherman or know someone who is, a literary agent has probably been in touch. Of course, it is helpful if you were featured in The Perfect Storm, as was veteran captain Linda Greenlaw, who cruised the book-tour circuit this spring with her memoir, The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey (Hyperion, $23). It is also permissible to write about the grand New England tradition of boats and fish and the sea, as evidenced by Richard Adams Carey's Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fishermen (Houghton Mifflin, $23), which profiles four small-boat captains, and Douglas Whynott's workmanlike A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time (Doubleday, $24), which follows E. B. White's cancer-stricken boatbuilder son, Joel, as he designs his masterpiece in his final days. Or you can move to Alaska and become a commercial fisherman and write about it, as former professor Bob Durr does in Down in Bristol Bay: High Tides, Hangovers, and Harrowing Experiences on Alaska's Last Frontier (St. Martin's, $24), flacked as a mix of Into the Wild, The Perfect Storm, Coming into the Country, The Snow Leopard, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. That's five books for the price of one.

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Rivaling these modern adventures for attention is a fleet of historical tales setting forth in the wake of Dava Sobel's Longitude and Caroline Alexander's The Endurance. Miriam Estensen gives us Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land (St. Martin's, $25), on the centuries-long grope for the Australian continent, and Brit Giles Milton offers Nathaniel's Nutmeg, or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), on the seventeenth-century Spice Wars. Nancy Lord scores bonus points for marrying a historical expedition with her own experience as, yes, a commercial fisherman in Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast (Counterpoint, $22), based on tycoon Edward Harriman's 1899 steamship voyage with a menagerie of eminences that included John Muir and John Burroughs. You don't even have to be alive to publish a book in this genre: Witness Penguin Classic's reissue of Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World ($8); Viking's release of the sea logs of one Charles Tyng, Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833 ($25); and the University of California Press's translation of French explorer Auguste Duhaut-Cilly's journal, A Voyage to California, the Sandwich Islands, and Around the World in the Years 1826-1829 ($30).

But this summer's hottest titleùliterallyùmay be Jeff Long's The Descent (Crown, $24; click here to read chapter one.). Whereas his earlier novel The Ascent took on Mount Everest, this time Long reverses direction with a story more like Into Thin Air meets Dante's Inferno: A team of climbers stumbles on a Himalayan cave that leads to the mouth of Hell. And as the publicity copy breathily reminds us, "Hell hath no fury like this six-figure marketing campaign." ùELIZABETH HIGHTOWER

PHOTOS: Clay Ellis

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