| The pleasures of this big book are bittersweet. Great books seduce: They allure, bewitch, provoke and, with a smooth coup de grbce, deliver on their promise. Gary Kinder, a Seattle writer of two previous works of journalism, certainly delivers here -- having lucked into a story this compelling, it would have taken an act of malicious incompetence to have done otherwise. But his seduction is so flat-footed and drab -- Kinder writes like a bricklayer, one brick after the other, slow and methodical -- that this particular seductee nearly screamed aloud for him to get on with it. But despite Kinder's detail-obsessed long-windedness, "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea" nudged more than one evening's reading into the dark morning hours. Whatever flaws Kinder has as a storyteller are more than offset by the sheer might of his tale.
Which, more or less, is this: In September 1857, a side-wheel steamer christened the S.S. Central America, en route from Panama to New York City and laden with California miners and their gold, as well as a 30,000-pound government gold shipment destined to shore up the floundering northern industrial economy, sank in a storm 200 miles off the Carolina coast. It was a nautical nightmare, the Titanic of its age. More than 450 people sank with the ship, which came to a dismal rest a mile and a half down on the ocean floor. But this is merely half of Kinder's tale, interwoven throughout the book. The remaining half occurs 132 years later, in 1989, when a brilliant, iconoclastic engineer named Tommy Thompson led an expedition to salvage what amounted to more than $1 billion worth of gold coins and bullion from the wreckage, in the process all but reinventing deep-sea technology.
It was an accomplishment that inspired a federal appeals court to gush: "Their story is a paradigm of American initiative, ingenuity, and determination." Kinder puts it this way: "Tommy Thompson and about a dozen colleagues committed to developing a working presence on the bottom of the deep ocean. No one had done it; no one knowledgeable thought it could be done without the full force of the United States government and unlimited resources. Even then, some were skeptical, because the government had already spent hundreds of millions trying." With $12 million in private investments and a three-year time frame, Thompson and his group proved nearly everyone wrong -- and yanked up a tremendous amount of gold.
It is by all means a remarkable story, an action-packed maritime tale that might easily have caught the eye of a latter-day Melville. It would be egregiously unfair, of course, to suggest that Kinder aspire to such lofty heights, but not so unfair to wish that his Micheneresque exhaustiveness had been curbed just a smidgen. It's an extraordinary story of scientific adventure, one that might have been, were it a little more taut, an extraordinary narrative as well.