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18 july 2011

Unbroken is the well-nigh incredible story of Louie Zamperini, Olympic distance runner, war hero, and world-class survivor. His story is by now well-known, because it's taken me a year to get and read Laura Hillenbrand's book: I often have to wait till library patrons' energy flags to read best-sellers. But to make a virtue of futility, perhaps waiting to read the book of the hour gives me some perspective on its literary qualities, after the hype has subsided to a dull roar.

Laura Hillenbrand's books (Seabiscuit and Unbroken) have been among the most-hyped of the young century, and unlike many heavily-promoted books, they stand up to their own penumbra of praise. Hillenbrand is an extraordinarily talented expository writer, with gifts for narrative, suspense, and pathos. With Unbroken she found the perfect match for her gifts: a story set in a well-known context (the Pacific theater of the second world war), but with an obscure protagonist and an unpredictable turn of events.

At first one can't imagine that anyone could survive the ordeals that Zamperini went through. The book's subtitle includes the word "survival," and continual references to what Zamperini and his comrade Allen Phillips were thinking as they suffered suggest that they lived to tell the tale. But at times Unbroken has the texture of an old yarn of Wild Bill Hickock's, where the gunfighter told of being trapped in a blind canyon by a troop of Indians, with no food or water, his ammunition running out and his horse dying. "What happened then, Bill?" someone would ask. "Well, boys, they killed me."

Books like Unbroken make me realize that some people are just better at stuff than I am. Zamperini and Phillips, sharing a two-person life-raft in the Pacific with a third airman, spend weeks with only rainwater to drink and the occasional albatross to eat, endure a typhoon and are strafed by a Japanese plane, whereupon they must patch their sinking raft in order to stay afloat above the circling sharks. They have patches and glue, but no sandpaper, so Zamperini has to break a shaving mirror in order to prep the raft's surface to accept a patch, which involves hanging over the side of the raft while his buddies slap the sharks away with their oars. And I think to myself, "Man, you are incapable of assembling an IKEA bookshelf on a full stomach. How long would you survive if you were starving at sea and had to improvise raft repairs under the supervision of man-eating sharks?"

And then their troubles really begin; not long after they land on a Japanese-held island, our heroes wish they were back on their raft. Zamperini endured two years of torture at the hands of Japanese war criminals, and then several more years of post-traumatic stress and alcoholism, before turning his life around 180 degrees with a conversion experience and a determination to spend the rest of it making other people's lives better. That was over sixty years ago. Zamperini, now 94, lives in Southern California and continues to change lives for the better, now with an assist from Laura Hillenbrand.

Two points do not necessarily determine a line, but it's becoming pretty clear that Hillenbrand likes her stories harrowing, triumphant, inspirational, and potentially glurgy. Yet neither Seabiscuit nor Unbroken is glurgy as a whole. Hillenbrand knows how to temper the saccharine with healthy additions of the bitter and the matter-of-fact. She is drawn to stories of suffering male bodies. Why, in psychological terms, I have no idea; but both Seabiscuit and Unbroken dwell on the beautiful, strong, controlled bodies of men, and the continual shattering and reshattering of those bodies that leaves just a core of masculine will burning in their husks. Red Pollard (Seabiscuit's smashed-up jockey) and Louie Zamperini are two of a kind: smart-ass, cocky, driven champions whose triumph is inextricable from their trauma.

Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption. New York: Random House, 2010.