Book Review - The Wager by David Grann

To me, David Grann can do no wrong. Where much of nonfiction stays at a bird's eye view, giving you the landscape, Grann takes you to eye level--offering a journey in your field of vision. The result? The experience feels tangible, and the adventure feels human. Grann's The Wager doesn't quite reach the heights set forth in Killers of the Flower Moon. But truthfully, does anything? The Wager doesn't have enough story or enough primary documents to support it.

That should be a detractor, but it's not. Grann relies on multiple diaries and documents to piece the story together. At times, the events of the story conflict with each other. But that's exactly Grann's point. We can never fully know what happened on The Wager, but we can guess; and the truth is probably some murky in-between of what we can hobble together.

The Wager follows the story of a captain and his crew who travel around Cape Horn in search of great finds. The travel is nothing short of disastrous, and the men are thought of as lost at sea. Low and behold, hundreds of days later, men arrive back on shore saying that there were many unforeseen casualties. Then, even further after that, three men return back on a different boat saying, "those initial people who landed were liars, and the true adventure was worse than that.: There was murder, mutiny and cannibalism.

This is a story that follows this voyage, and let me tell you, it's wild. This book makes the tumultuous seas of Moby Dick look like still-water. This story is unhinged. From the early moments of typhoid, to battles with scurvy, to starvation and murder: Grann's prose hoists us right into the action. Details from the topography or the aft feel essential. And as you learn the hierarchy of the ship, the chaos only becomes more apparent. This book is not for the weak-stomach, there is plenty of gut-wrenching, vomiting-inducing and diarrhea-fueled moments. With each crest of the wave, I could picture the ebb and flow happening. On some level, it felt like I needed some Dramamine. Yes--it's that tangible.

Grann holds no prisoners. The moment with scurvy, something I often thing of as a punchline to a pirate joke, is a horror beyond horrors. The way he lingers over flesh and cartilage--the gumminess of the crew, is a moment I soon won't forget. And the book holds this leering momentum nearly the whole way through. Whether they're visited by "savages" or fending against the elements, Grann's craft makes every moment feel real. He's also is not afraid to point out the hypocrisy. Where the men rely on local habitants who visit, they have no problem detailing in their diary their dealings with "savages." This book paints our "heroes" as full beings, flaws and all. It gives the book some breath and depth, and allows us to wonder what are some of the fragments within the story.  

But once the horrors are done, there's still the mystery at the heart of this adventure. I don't know if I ever quite got the solace at the end I was looking for; this is something more open-ended and less complete here. But that's not really Grann's intention; this is where the threads of this story lie. And if it's not so much the ending as it is the journey, this is a journey of the highest class. Grann continues his tradition of deliver high action nonfiction that pulls no punches with its subject. 

Release date: April 18, 2023
MSRP: $20.24


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