three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
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A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

A-OutlawSeaThe ocean, writes Langewiesche, represents "free enterprise at its freest," an outpost of anarchy and amorality. Outlaw Sea recounts shocking stories of modern-day piracy in the Strait of Malacca, the near impossible challenges faced by the Department of Homeland Security in monitoring coastlines, and the terrible human and environmental costs incurred in western India’s "shipbreaking" business. It centers on the loss of the Estonia, a giant ferry that sank in the Baltic in 1994, killing 852 passengers. All throughout, Langewiesche examines familiar themes: the rich fighting the poor, free markets breeding lawlessness and environmental disorder, and governments failing to police the oceans. He concludes that the sea is, perhaps, "a harbinger of a larger chaos to come."
North Point. 239 pages. $23.
ISBN: 0865475814

Detroit Free Press 4.5 of 5 Stars
"He manages in prose to evoke the same mesmerized horror that the film version of the Titanic’s sinking evoked from the screen. … But when Langewiesche meets a mind as tenacious as his, as when he interviews a Finnish naval architect who investigated the Estonia sinking, well, that is an event to thrill us journalism aficionados." Marta Salij

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Langewiesche’s narrative achieves an almost operatic grandeur as we follow the frantic and heartbreaking efforts of several well-chosen characters to escape from the capsized ferry [Estonia]. … As he demonstrates time and time again in this brave, often electrifying book, it is a world that is both new and very old, and we ignore it at our peril." Nathaniel Philbrick

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"His prose flows seamlessly and elegantly, effortlessly integrating investigative reporting, political analysis, travel writing and even film criticism. … [The 1994 capsizing of the Estonia] is a terrifying and saddening story that becomes all the more wrenching in his mercilessly clear-eyed telling." Jesse Berrett

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Langewiesche] is a renowned Atlantic Monthly writer who once worked as a ‘freight dog’—a pilot who flew goods at night through turbulent weather in barely airworthy airplanes—and is a master at explaining complex technological subjects for a general audience. … This is an angry book, although Langewiesche’s tone is not one of fury. He simply lets his astonishing facts tell the story." Henry Kisor

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Outlaw Sea is written, for the most part, with the cool, dispassionate elegance we’ve come to expect from Langewiesche. … But—and this is a big ‘but’—a disproportionate amount of [it] (almost 100 of its 239 pages) is devoted to the sinking of the ferryboat Estonia. … And it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of book." Michael Upchurch

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"This is not a unified, coherent work of nonfiction, but rather a collection of magazine pieces, somewhat loosely strung together. … The anarchy on the seas is not merely entropy, in his view, but … an unpoliceable world where the ship steaming over the horizon might be carrying a dirty nuclear bomb, bin Laden himself or just a load of molasses." Bill Gifford

Critical Summary

Langewiesche, an Atlantic Monthly correspondent and author of American Ground (2003), turns an astute eye to a disturbing topic: the sea’s pollution, piracy, and possible breeding ground for terrorism. His stories, written in lucid, gripping prose, reveal the tragic consequences of our failure to police the sea’s terrible freedoms. Some critics feel that Langewiesche devotes too much time to the Estonia, which—though told in thrilling details culled from survivor testimonies—doesn’t fit in with his larger regulatory theme. This disconnect diminishes the book’s call to action. Yet overall, Outlaw Sea is riveting. And we can breathe easy knowing that the U.S. leads the world in ocean safety and environmental regulation. But it only examines two percent of all containers coming into port.

Also by the Author

AS-AmericanGroundAmerican Ground Unbuilding the World Trade Center | William Langewiesche (2003): A clear-eyed, dramatic look at the cleanup of the post-9/11 World Trade Center site.