Today’s selection:

Shadow Divers

by Robert Kurson

Plot: A group of amateur divers discover the wreck of a WWII German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, and proceed to ruin (and in some cases, forfeit) their lives attempting to explore and identify it.

Review: Playing the game Endless Ocean, we take a lot of diving experiences for granted: exploring shipwrecks, tickling deep sea monsters, swimming below 500 feet while eating a box of Fiddle Faddle. But in the oceans of the real world, diving is not so convenient. Or safe. It’s often cold, and dark, and filled with very real risks. Even with sharks out of the picture, Davy Jones can find any number of ways to kill you. You can get stuck in a cave or a wreck; you can get lost and run out of air; you can overstay your visit and shoot back to the surface without decompressing, turning your blood to champagne; you can even lose your mind, think you’re a fish, and draw in deep lungfuls of seawater. Scuba Diving: Just Don’t Do It.

This public service announcement has been brought to you by Shadow Divers, the scariest freaking book about diving I’ve ever read.

Shadow Divers—which is nonfictionbegins by introducing a trio of distinctive characters—Vietnam vet John Chatterton, working-class salvage pirate Richie Kohler, and alcoholic treasure seeker Bill Nagel, crazy mothers all—and charting the disperate paths that bring them together and ultimately bind them over the wreck of a mysterious submarine lying under 250 feet of dark, turbulent water off the Jersey Coast. On one of the first dives to explore the wreck, a less experienced diver dies by succumbing  to nitrogen narcosis, a disaster that unfolds with the slow-motion logic of a nightmare.

Although the sub is definitely identified as a German U-boat, none of the wartime records acknowledge sinking one in the area. Which U-boat is it, and what brought it to the bottom of the sea? Because Chatterton and Kohler are not your average weekend wreck raiders, they begin to dig for answers.

The second part of the book resembles a cross between History Detectives and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as Chatterton and Kohler comb archives and interview veterans on both sides of the Atlantic for details that can help identify the wreck they’ve come to call “U-Who,” returning for yet more ill-fated dives while charter captain Nagel slowly drinks himself to death.

The final chapters, which alternate between recounting the last days of the doomed U-boat crew and the divers’ ever more desperate attempts to find something, anything that can identify the wreck, are so suspenseful and harrowing that ultimately, the book is exhausting. I put this down with a sense of relief many weeks ago, and haven’t wanted to revisit it until now. Not light reading, no. But recommended.

Journalist Robert Kurson had a great story on his hands when he began writing Shadow Divers, and he delivers it well with careful documentation and a terse, hard-boiled style. Moreover he produces a complex and unsparing portait of determined, sensitive but flawed men and the mystery that changed, and in some cases, cost them their lives.

Next time you return from grabbing loot from the wreck of  HD-9 in the Zahhab Depths and think that someday you’d like to go treasure diving for real, give Shadow Divers a read—it’s a thorough reality-check.

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