Editorial Note: This article first appeared in the New York Times on Thursday, November 20.
In 1987, a toddler who became known to the world as Baby Jessica fell into an abandoned well in a backyard in Midland, Tex., where she was stuck for 58 hours. Watching the coverage as a 7-year-old, I couldn’t get an answer from the newscasters or my parents that explained why it was taking so long for so many smart grown-ups to solve such a simple problem. Even now, I find it hard to believe that the human race can be outmatched by such a primitive adversary as a hole in the ground.
Crises of faith are the dominant theme of Héctor Tobar’s “Deep Down Dark,” the story of 33 men who were buried for 69 days in a collapsed Chilean mine in 2010. With his exclusive access to the survivors, Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, graphically recounts the quandaries that beset the men as well as their families — camped out at the mine’s entrance — the officials and rescue crews as a worldwide audience watched. There is weeping. There is acceptance of death. There is the miners’ terror, every time the rescue drill stops, that they have been given up for dead. “The silence just destroyed us,” one man told Tobar. “Without a positive sign, your faith collapses. Because faith isn’t totally blind.” Some men find a stronger connection to God (“Omar realizes that the improbable fact of their survival also carries a hint of the divine. To be alive in this hole, against all odds, speaks to Omar of the existence of a higher power with some sort of plan for these still-living men”). Others struggle with whether to pray or to succumb to the darkness and lie down to die.
The hierarchy that gave the miners order in their workday routine is destroyed almost instantaneously. The shift supervisor buckles under the realities of the collapse and abdicates his authority. Other men step up to fill the void, taking charge in various tasks like ration distribution. Sometimes the other men listen — sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, desperate, frustrated shouting matches break out, threatening to turn violent.
Tobar plunges the reader into this world of uncertainty with visceral, present-tense prose and careful pacing. The writing is clean and skillful (if rarely stunning), although the huge cast is sometimes hard to keep track of; despite regular reminders, you occasionally forget which miner has the mistress or the dead father or the daughter in college.
There are also a few interjections of archaic sentiments about the sexes: To draw upon strength, one miner’s wife supposedly “reaches deep into her feminine soul,” whatever that is. We’re told elsewhere that every man works in the mine “for the woman or women in his life,” as if he wouldn’t need a job to pay for basic goods and services were he single. A relationship dynamic that sounds perilously close to domestic violence is explained away as a “tempestuous” one in which “the love and hate two people have for each other causes them to treat each other poorly.” But mostly, Tobar lets the rich details speak for themselves.