Books: Jesse Berrett on "Devils on the Deep Blue Sea."

Categories: Book Review
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Literally or metaphorically, great muckraking aims to make your gorge rise. Consider those heartwarming scenes of men and rats ground into sausage in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, or the yummy tidbits about how much you were lovin' e.coli in Fast Food Nation. By that standard, Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes, and Showdowns that Built America's Cruise-Ship Empires (Viking) merits only an unpleasant belch or two.

Sure, there are appalling moments. In the industry's early days, so many elderly cruisers passed away en route that one line used its meat locker as a temporary morgue. A beleaguered Carnival Cruises broke a four-day sitdown strike in 1981 by sneaking its private SWAT team aboard, then hustling the strikers onto buses that drove them directly to the airport and instant deportation. Grungy little Majesty Cruise Lines tried desperately to avoid foreclosure on a ship in 1995 by offering up a lifeboat and one of the stewards as collateral.

But there's simply not enough to get you properly irate here. In part, the problem is tonal: Journalist Kristoffer A. Garin muffles material that should make him smack his lips. In the post-Love Boat era, passenger traffic exploded by 400 percent within a decade, and crews enjoyed a sexual wonderland. But this is his best anecdote: A senior executive, upon espying a young woman sneaking out of an officer's cabin, sees not a serious breach of the rules but another satisfied customer. "'She'll be back again,'" he says. "That was the mind-set," Garin adds. "Give the people what they want." Plop.

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea seems to believe that what the reader wants is inside-business scuttlebutt, and an awful lot of it: who went public when, whose corporate parents couldn't get along, who bought whom and why. Garin does document, in general terms, oppressive and dishonest recruitment practices for workers (owners exercise plausible deniability). And he reveals the fact that endemic bribery still greases every ship's work culture. But the balance of yuck and blab is off, and you finish the book not nearly as disgusted as you should be. Put simply: too much M&A, not enough T&A. --Jesse Berrett


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