Hector Tobar, much like the miners he writes about, successfully surmounts two huge obstacles in his new nonfiction masterpiece, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.
The first hurdle is that, since the disaster at the San Jose mine happened in 2010, anyone who follows the news (or even bothers to read the subtitle) will know the ending from the start: The miners all get out alive. But the lack of suspense doesn't matter because Tobar weaves together so much intimate detail that the human drama leaves no need for a big reveal.
The second hurdle is a sprawling cast of characters to follow, and just 306 hardcover pages in which to do it. The people we meet include not only the 33 miners trapped 2,000 feet underground but also the economically strapped, irresponsible mine owners who put them there, and the miners' families — the wives, children and mistresses who gather just above the mine to live in makeshift “Camp Esperanza” while they pressure the owners to save the men before they perish from starvation or are crushed in a mine collapse.
Add in the government officials who got involved after three days when the local mining industry launched an ineffective rescue effort; the engineers, mechanics and drillers; and the celebrities and media drawn to the disaster like seagulls to an open picnic basket, and you end up with enough stories to overwhelm a less skillful author.
In fact, it's hard to imagine that the movie based on this book, called The 33 and due out next year, will be able to overcome such obstacles. This may be one case where the written narrative is more effective than the cinematic, in part because the overwhelming image in this story must surely be near-constant darkness.
As if to drive home its nonvisual nature, the book is one of those rare nonfiction works without pictures to illustrate the text, just one prologue page with 33 headshots.
That pictorial absence was deliberate, Tobar says. “The idea was that the writing itself be very visual. It's a literary telling of a famous story — 1.2 billion people saw it on TV,” he says. “I wanted to transport the reader inside the mine though the use of words.”
Tobar, 51, was born and raised in Los Angeles. He was briefly an L.A. Weekly features editor but spent 23 years at the L.A. Times and won a Pulitzer as part of its team coverage of the 1992 riots. He draws from a wealth of sources, including a 210-page government report, a daily diary kept by one of the miners and extensive interviews.
Tobar traveled to Chile five times to interview the men, and he pulls no punches in describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears and their complicated and sometimes broken relationships. He presents us with ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances — hard-drinking, hard-living, working men reacting in a very human way to a disaster, not the cartoonish “heroes” portrayed by the media.
Really, three separate stories are told here. The first covers the initial 17 days, when the 33 men banded together in horrific, inferno-like conditions. They had only two days' food supply — cookies and cans of tuna — and drank dirty, oil-infected water designed to cool the mine's drilling systems. Worst of all, they were out of touch with the outside world and rapidly losing faith that anyone was going to rescue them. “The unity of the men helped pull them through,” Tobar says.
The second story covers the 52 days after the first rescue drill burst its way into their underground bunker, when many of them became consumed with the fame and riches they believed awaited them up on the surface.
Then there is the aftermath, when they had to resume their predisaster lives while dealing with newfound celebrity and PTSD. It is the latter two stories that are really “untold” and that prove most compelling.
In the process, Tobar punctures one of the myths that the global media pushed to sell the story in real time: that the wife and mistress of one of the men only learned about one another when they both showed up at the mine. The truth is each had known about the other for years.
“That was a myth that went around the world,” Tobar tells the Weekly.
Today that miner, Yonni Barrios, is married to his former mistress, Susana.
That happy ending didn't make it into the book because it happened so recently — but you can be sure it'll be in the movie.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: