If indeed “Moby Dick” is the most beautiful American novel, it should therefore have conveyed everything there is to say about maritime tragedy. Apparently, however, the authors, agents, and editors – and certainly the readers – didn’t get the message. Davy Jones’ locker – damn it, his whole library! – full of tales of doom in the depths, and more and more are being published all the time.
The titles cover both fiction and non-fiction: “The Perfect Storm”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, (local author Robert G. Ballard) “Discovery of the Titanic”, “Dead Wake”, a book titled something like ” Jaws “,” In the Heart of the Sea “,” The Deep “, and dozens, if not hundreds, of others. The subject eternally fascinates, frightens and fixes us.
And writers keep finding new threads and themes to explore, as if they’ve washed up like pieces of the Pequot after a whale tail beating. For example, dive, so to speak, into “The Lost Boys of Montauk: A True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanish at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind”, the new non-fictional title from the seasoned journalist. Long Island resident Amanda Fairbanks.
“The Lost Boys of Montauk” is the pick for the July edition of our “Read of The Day” book club, and Fairbanks will have a virtual discussion of the work on Thursday.
In March 1984, the commercial fishing vessel Wind Blown left Montauk on a routine working trip. On board were Captain Mike Steadman, owner of the boat and father of three, as well as two young local men and the blue-blooded son of a wealthy summer family. Steadman himself was “born in the mansion,” but rejected family expectations and chose the life of a fisherman.
About a week after the trip began, the crew encountered a sudden and powerful storm, and neither the boat nor the bodies of the fishermen were found.
According to the history of the genre, this concise capsule alone would pique the curiosity of readers and publishers – and it did. Fairbanks based its proposal primarily on this ground.
âI definitely sold the proposal on a much more limited premise than how the book ended,â Fairbanks laughs. She speaks hands-free while driving on a Long Island freeway during a severe afternoon storm. Fortunately she is not at sea!
Fairbanks explains that as a first-time author but longtime journalist – she has contributed to The New York Times, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle and has been editor at the East Hampton Star. – she got into the project the only way she knew how. But instead of speaking with sources for concise newspaper or magazine articles, where space and time have certain limits, Fairbanks ended up doing over 100 in-depth interviews. The more she learned about the crew members and their families, as well as the complex dynamics of life on Montauk, the more the surface hook of a tragedy at sea became a multi-layered and complex story.
âI knew exactly the constraints of reporting in newspapers and magazines,â she says, âand ended up reporting two or three times what I needed. The structure of the book has gone through many different versions. I was learning to tell a story in a different voice. I was used to a setting where every word mattered, but now I was starting to extrapolate a little more. “
Fairbanks makes perfect use of its new narrative freedom. “The Lost Boys of Montauk” is an evocative visual story that dramatically builds up as you go. Plus, as a native of California who settled with her husband and children in Sag Harbor, Fairbanks was learning by working in an area she is now literally a part of.
âIt often seemed overwhelming,â she says. âThere were socio-economic and class division issues in Montauk and what that meant for the commercial fishery. And, of course, I was dealing with grief, loss and trauma – some of which was experienced peripherally but also through direct survivors. Members of the Community fishing fleet are still very much haunted. “
Following these threads has revealed a network that has long defined Montauk: the often difficult coexistence between workers who have lived there for generations as well as the very wealthy who see the village and its beaches as a “summer place”. to savor at will.
But the staff on board the boat also characterizes another reality. Young people who meet in Montauk during the summers, regardless of class or privilege, often interact and develop friendships. Once again, the staff aboard the Wind Blown were split between two privileged men and two of the village blue collar workers.
Exploring the respective “lost boys” stories led to another angle that Fairbanks had not necessarily anticipated. She says, âI learned the elements of brotherhood among fishermen as well as the bonds between fathers and sons and their expectations.
There is also a folkloristic subtext to Montauk which borders on mysticism and embraces the superstitions of the sea and those who work its waters.
To that end, one of the book’s haunting hooks is why Steadman already bought Wind Blown to begin with. He saw a photo of the ship in a publication of boats for sale and immediately fell in love with it. But even like the post, it didn’t seem designed for the kind of deep-sea fishing job Steadman envisioned.
Despite protests from his wife and friends, he still bought it, brought it up from the Gulf of Mexico, and seemed stubbornly oblivious to its obvious structural shortcomings.
âThis is one of the great mysteries of this story,â says Fairbanks. âCaptain Steadman was charming and charismatic and bridged the gap between the rich and the fishing class. What was in this boat that he must have had despite all the contrary knowledge and basic intelligence of the street? His friends and family had bad feelings about the boat and guessing, but he couldn’t be dissuaded. “