The Perfect Hurricane

THE DISASTER BOOK, like the disaster movie, enjoyed a brief rebirth during the last years of the millenium.  The apocalyptic atmosphere was ripe for megablockbusters like The Perfect Storm and Titanic, Into Thin Air and Deep Impact, and their mega-success spawned copycats, some of which became megahits themselves.  Even now, well into the new millenium, the public’s hunger for these appears insatiable, though it may just be an echo, supply hoping to spur more demand.

Erik Larson’s lucid and entertaining Isaac’s Storm seems to fit this pattern.  A non-fiction narrative fashioned around a natural disaster, it mimics Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, taking the reader through the tragic Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, letting us see the age and the events through the eyes of the city’s people, most notably its chief meteorologist, Isaac Cline. According to Larson’s research, due to a chain of factors, most beyond his control, Cline failed to warn the citizens of the hurricane’s approach and later took credit for saving 6,000 inhabitants.

The charms of the book–again, like the other non-fiction blockbusters of the late ’90s–are its attention to detail, its investigation of the way things work, and, most important, its relentless drive towards a brutal and terrifying climax.  Where in The Perfect Storm we learn about the commercial fishing industry and wave formation, and in Into Thin Air we learn about mountaineering, in Isaac’s Storm we learn about the roots of the U.S. Weather Bureau and the behavior of hurricanes.

The non-fiction disaster narrative is simple, one might say narrow, in its arc.  History–time itself–has organized the material.  As in conventional commercial fiction, there is an almost formulaic sequence of set-up, build-up and pay-off, and the pay-off, because of the overwhelming scale and dire nature of the event, is guaranteed to be satisfying.  The major climax is the disaster itself, gathering together all the disparate elements that came before and providing a grand release for the dread and anticipation that has been growing in the reader since opening the book.

The structure, however, is at the author’s discretion.  Typically, there is a preface, foreword or prologue which advertises the horror to come, drawing the reader in like a carnival barker. Then the author introduces the major players and contributing factors at his or her leisure, unfolding the events chronologically, using the delay of reaching the fateful moment as a substitute for drama.  Disaster strikes, with scene after exciting life-threatening scene.  Once the fates of the players are decided, the author describes the aftermath and any longterm consequences, then wraps up.

In Isaac’s Storm, Larson adds several dashes of foreshadowing to this formula, inserting brief flash-forwards into his build-up sections that inform the reader of the hurricane’s current position, as if to ratchet up the tension. There’s no need for such melodrama; we know it’s on its way.  It’s as if Larson doesn’t trust his material, resorting instead to the hardsell.

Likewise, Larson has an unfortunate weakness for the one sentence paragraph, a staple of bad newspaper writing, used for easy emphasis, an effect that, in a serious work, comes off as portentous and overwrought.  The narrative is sailing along gracefully, only to pull up and deliver isolated paragraphs such as:

‘The wind continued to intensify.’

or

‘It did not include a seawall.’

or

‘He was as good as dead.’

On the whole, Larson is a capable, workmanlike writer, though at times he stretches for metaphors.  The hurricane’s force is too often compared to warfare, rain like bullets or shrapnel. ‘Gusts struck the building like cannonballs.’  Taste and a careful cultivation of tone are key to all writing, but because the effects of any real disaster are severe, it’s easy for an author to drift into overheated prose, and Larson occasionally lapses into sentences like:  ‘The window exploded outward into the storm along with Mr. Quayle, who rocketed to his death trailing a slipstream of screams from his wife,’ or ‘ . . . bedrooms erupting in a tumult of flying glass and wood, rooftops soaring through the air like monstrous kites.’  In an attempt to convey the wild violence of the storm, the author cranks up his language and imagery and overstates the facts of the case, when there’s no need.

The goal of most disaster non-fiction is to let the reader understand what it was like to actually be there, and Larson does a solid enough job, weaving his details together into a world with weight and extension.  The reader wishes, though, that the marvelous and awesome photographs of the hurricane’s destruction he decribes throughout the book were included.  Despite 40 pages of notes, there’s no explanation why they weren’t.

Also at the author’s discretion is his or her use of research.  Both Junger and Jon Krakauer have been criticized here for their abuse of the strict truth in crafting their non-fictions, and Mr. Larson has not escaped these charges.  By attributing thoughts and desires to the people in Isaac’s Storm not part of any public or private record, he has–to some–crossed the line separating fiction and non-fiction.

The difficulty of animating researched non-fiction material, of making it palatable to an audience of general readers, often consists of attaching an event to a particular person, a hero, if you will.  The hero draws the reader’s attention and gives the author a through-line, someone the reader can follow through the event and who, if well chosen, adds to its significance.  In Isaac’s Storm, Larson has chosen, among others, Isaac Cline. But Cline, in real life, left only a partial record of his involvement in the hurricane, as did other survivors; he didn’t provide a full, sensually detailed account of those days.  ‘How, then’ Larson asks in his notes, ‘does one fill in the blanks?’

Since the mid-60s, non-fiction has gradually given up its claims to perfect objectivity and turned more and more to fiction’s devices to captivate the reader.  Gonzo journalism and Capote’s and Mailer’s “non-fiction novels” gave birth to Michael Herr’s great Dispatches, and since the mid-80s a whole new genre of “creative non-fiction” has sprung up, using the techniques of fiction, the most important of which is point of view–what a character or person is thinking and feeling–once the sole province of the novelist or story writer. Ideally, by combining the power and complexity of emotion possible with deep point of view and the reader’s natural interest in actual happenings, the new creative non-fiction has an advantage over both old forms.

The transition hasn’t been easy, and in some cases is impossible.  The problem is that, in fiction, the reader is treated to a character’s rich-to-brimming point of view, including all five senses and a full interior life of thought and memory, even sometimes the flavor of his or her language.  In non-fiction drawn solely from paper and photographic archives, these powerful tools are taken away from the author.  The author honestly cannot say what is in a historical person’s mind or heart (or eye or nose) at a certain moment.  The temptation that must be resisted is to fabricate or fill in details, ascribe emotion during dramatic action (‘The sound frightened Isaac.’).

Larson has chosen a standard tactic, proposing that Isaac Cline, in all probablility, would have seen barrels floating in the brown floodwater at a particular time, or, coming out of his house one morning, would have smelled roasting coffee from a nearby warehouse.  He works off his research well for the most part, but at times he overplays his hand, attributing thoughts to real people as if they were fictional characters.  One U.S. Weather Bureau employee, thinking of the Cuban forecasters, muses, ‘These people–they saw hurricanes in their sleep.’

A minor point, it would be, except Larson proposes that the Bureau’s lack of regard for the Cubans was a major factor in their ignoring Cuban warnings, leading to the large scope of the disaster.  Here the author bolsters his own point with evidence entirely of his own making–an unethical way of arguing his case.

Equally distressing is Larson’s presentation of Isaac and his belief in Science as a symbol of the age, making a straw man of his character that the hurricane will knock down–‘Isaac, father of three, husband, lover, scientist, and creature of the new heroic American age’–as if, like the creators of the Titanic, he has tempted fate with an overweening belief in the powers of technology. Galveston, also, is portrayed as proud, haughty even, in its lust for growth and dominance in the region.  By design, Larson imbues the man and the city with these qualities in order to drive home the moral of the story.

And that moral is simple.  When man believes he is stronger than nature, nature will remind him with a vengeance.

Of course, by Larson’s own account, if the Americans had listened to the Cubans’ forecast, the hurricane would have killed far fewer people.  And the Cubans, of course, are human, and proud of their forecasting prowess, therefore, according to this logic, they should have been smitten too, and they weren’t.  But then, that would disprove what the bulk of Isaac’s Storm is dedicated to saying.

And that moral is important.  It’s the same moral all these disaster books and films convey–not randomness or chaos or bad luck, but pride that precedes a great fall.  It may be that their massive popularity in Western society comes from an anxiety borne of the scientific advances of the last century, an unstated and unsettling feeling that even in our daily lives we’ve overstretched ourselves and will ultimately suffer for it.  False causation or not, by reading accounts of such disasters, we may be paying tribute (or lip service) to that fear, indulging and acknowledging it in a safe way, hedging our bets while we plunge on, deeper into this technological age.

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