There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Let me let you in on a secret. There are two good reasons to open a book review with an epigraph.

First, it gives the writer a semblance of credibility.

“Oh, this guy who is about to tell me about In the Heart of the Sea has read at least one other book,” the reader thinks. “Since it’s a quote from a notoriously difficult novel, he must be intelligent enough to offer an opinion on this one.”

The second reason to use an epigraph is that it allows a writer to do without a lead paragraph while it offers a compass bearing toward the destination of the review.

In the Heart of the Sea, 238 pages plus 62 pages of notes, is a story about a shipwreck in which a sperm whale cops an attitude and, with two head butts, sends the 20-man whale-oil hunting crew of the Essex to hell.

Readers might be familiar with parts of the story. Melville’s classic took its apocalyptic climax from the Essex’s story, which in its day (the shipwreck occurred on Nov. 20, 1820) was as famous as the Donner Party disaster is in ours.

While Melville ended his book with the whale’s attack, Philbrick goes further and deeper, describing all the seemingly inevitable steps that took the crewmembers beyond the brink of madness. In the true story of the Essex, the crew, which escaped the wreck in leaky whale boats, survived for months on not enough bread to make a watercress sandwich, a couple of Galapagos turtles and the flesh of their fellow man.

At one point, the captain even eats his 18-year-old cousin, a crime worse than hunting the largest-brained animal on the planet. And, if being adrift for months on the boundless Pacific, with little water and no parasol to protect him from the cruel sun weren’t punishment enough, when Capt. George Pollard Jr. arrived home at Nantucket Island, he had to explain to his aunt why her child was murdered and snacked on. Seven other crewmen also survived the shipwreck by sucking the marrow out of their shipmates’ bones.

The book’s biggest flaws are Philbrick’s dulled sense of irony and distrust of the reader’s intelligence. While another author might have mentioned the various ironies (such as being surrounded by water but dying of dehydration), Philbrick repeatedly batters us with weird things he noticed (The African-American crewmen died and got eaten first; can you believe these anti-slavery Quaker whalemen could be so racist?).

At any rate, Philbrick’s shortcomings barely get in the way of this great story. He also casts some literary harpoons. Just as Melville used specific plot details, such as the whale-line in the chapter “The Line,” to describe general themes—man’s interconnectedness to man—Philbrick uses the microcosms of the individual escaping whaleboats to describe the way people treated and treat one another in American society. And that’s a pretty good accomplishment out of a scholarly effort like In the Heart of the Sea.

With the recent success of such true-life dramas as The Perfect Storm, Philbrick picked a good time to bring this long-submerged story back to the surface. I also think he found a can’t-lose story in the plight of the Essex’s crew.

“The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure,” Philbrick writes in the book’s epilogue. “It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.”

He’s right, and that statement could have made a great epigraph, when you think about it.