The greatest pleasure of reading is discovering that a book you would have completely ignored, if not avoided like the plague, is one of the best books you'll read all year. I never would have given SHADOW DIVERS by Robert Kurson a second glance if someone hadn't pressed a copy of it into my hands (via UPS) and said, "You have GOT to read this!" Let's see…I have to read a book about deep sea diving and salvage? Something I have absolutely no interest in? I thought I would give this book fifty pages and say, "Thanks, but no thanks." To my surprise, though, I was hooked by the second page.
The thrust of SHADOW DIVERS concerns the 1991 discovery of a sunken U-boat at 230 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey, right in the middle of a spot where it was not supposed to be and where, supposedly, it could not be. The protagonists of this story, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, spent the following six years attempting to solve the mystery of how the ship came to be where it was.
The respective stories of Chatterton and Kohler are almost as fascinating as the story of the sunken ship itself. Chatterton, who distinguished himself as a Vietnam War medic, and Kohler, a somewhat brash salvage diver, had developed an intense dislike for each other prior to the events chronicled in SHADOW DIVERS. But the discovery and exploration of the mystery ship resulted in the birth and development of a bonding friendship between the men, forged in the sense of discovery and the risk of danger that an undertaking such as this involves.
230 feet doesn't sound like a great distance. It's less than the length of a football field, yet the dangers involved in diving to that depth are almost unimaginable. It is the description of those dangers that gives Kurson a chance to really shine. His description of the dark and dangerous exploration of a sunken ship at any depth is enough to induce instant claustrophobia. Kurson's explanation of what "the bends" are is as succinct and clear as any I've ever read; in fact, I never really did understand the condition until I read his explanation in SHADOW DIVERS. Kurson is also a true stylist --- something you don't always find in a tale of this nature --- and as a result, SHADOW DIVERS is filled with turns of phrase that you will remember long after you finish this tale.
Accordingly, you can throw away any preconceived notions you might have about historical or biographical works, or tales from the sea. SHADOW DIVERS is a book for everyone, a --- dare I say it? --- KON-TIKI for the twenty-first century. It doesn't get any better than that. And thank you, Carol Fitzgerald. If you hadn't pressed SHADOW DIVERS into my sweaty little hands, I never would have read it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011