One night— many years ago— having temporarily gone off the rails, I phoned Legs McNeil to share in the experience. Legs (something of a veteran in going off the rails himself) shocked me with his apathy.
“So, open a book,” was his unsympathetic response.
“No, no. It’s bad,” I whined. “I CAN’T EVEN READ!”
Not realizing it had come to this, Legs sprung into action. “Allow me,” he said, suddenly sounding like Wodehouse’s Jeeves, all benevolence and authority.
I heard him slide a book off his shelf. And then, administering the balm from Gilead, he began to read… “When the dam let go, the lake seemed to leap into the valley like a living thing… The wall of water snapped trees like pipe stems… the noise was deafening… the barn, wrenched from its footings, began to roll like a barrel, over and over. Running, stumbling, crawling hand over hand, clawing at tin and wood, Victor somehow managed to keep on top… He saw what appeared to be the whole Mussante family sailing by on a barn floor… Hands of the dead struck out of ruins, their arms stretched– the last instinct of expiring humanity grasping at a straw… The drowning and the devastation took all of ten minutes…”
I don’t recall how long his narration lasted, but by the time some 2000-odd people of Johnstown, PA had perished, I was back on the rails again, completely at peace. (And, do I dare say…Happy?) I still don’t quite understand it. Why did this calm me down? It wasn’t as if Goodnight Moon had been part of the read-aloud. Maybe, this is what Aristotle was getting at in The Poetics; that catharsis thing that audience members are supposed to undergo at the conclusion of a tragedy. Whatever. That night Legs and I discovered we shared a love: Epic tales of death and destruction!
That same book, The Johnstown Flood, by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, came up (as this type of thing inevitably does) over dinner the other night with Legs and Danny Fields. Legs claimed this was the best book on a disaster ever written, while Danny demurred. “Two thousand people, that’s nothing,” he said, or words to that effect. “Six or eight thousand people died in that Texas storm, or flood, or whatever it was. You know, where all the orphans drowned…”
Orphans, what orphans?
“Oh, you kno-o-ow, the ones the nuns tied to their beds…”
Miffed, neither Legs nor I could fathom how we had missed this tragedy, especially the part about the nuns and the orphans.
Are you sure? That’s creepy. Were they punishing them? Why did they tie them to the beds?
“Ohhh, I don’t kno-o-ow,” said Danny with a wave of his hand. “I guess, so they wouldn’t float away…”
Later on in the meal, when Legs mentioned buying all seven volumes of Proust and Danny was able to comment on the best translations, it reminded me of how literate and smart the New York punk scene was, versus the “No Future” juvenilia that was the hallmark of England’s. Even as a kid, I found that posture stupid. Stateside, bands referenced writers like Verlaine (Television), or Rimbaud (Patti Smith), or Grahame Greene (The Ramones). (Yes, The Ramones— “Next stop, Havana Au Go-Go!”) And, of course, once the Sex Pistols came here and blew snot all over everyone, all hope of Dee Dee ever counting four on mainstream radio was abandoned. So I still harbor some resentment against those limey teabags. Alas, these types are forever in our midst. Those drama queens and emotional blackmailers and suicide threateners— and you know who you are— who toss out smarty-pants words like anhedonia and nihilism (so bandied about at the height of punk) to justify their preposterous pain. Well, I say to them, if you want NO FUTURE, we’ll give you NO FUTURE: PKM’s Official 10 Best Catastrophe Books:
Recommended Reading for the Ungrateful.
One book alone ought to put your crummy life in perspective. No longer will you whine, or snarl, or threaten to end it all. I predict you’ll be shoving the women and children out of the lifeboats like the rest of us. Consume three, or more, and you might be able to hold your own over dinner with Legs and Danny.
1. The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. So many of the tragedies on this list could have easily been avoided, but for the greed, hubris, corruption, politics, or outright evil of “those” in control. In this case, a dam, constructed in the mountains overlooking Johnstown, Pennsylvania was built in haste. Better to hurry up and create a lake in which vacationing robber barons (like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon) could fish for trout. Guess what? In 1889, the dam broke, and a wall of water— 70 feet high! —came a-tumbling down, killing 2,300 people. If you can’t imagine Legs’ voice reading this book to you, imagine the author’s. It’s the same one that has etched Ken Burns’ documentaries and PBS’ American Experience into our once ignorant brains.
2. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. Larson’s book, about the turn-of-the-century meteorologist Isaac Cline, is both a history of hurricanes and an absorbing tale of the backbiting first days of the U.S. Weather Bureau. No one wanted to admit the Cuban priests, who tracked weather on that Caribbean backwater, had correctly predicted a cyclone would hit Galveston on September 8, 1900, not when the Americans were calling for sunny skies. Better to let an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people die, including Danny’s orphans. Oh, it turns out the nuns had tied the urchins to themselves, not the beds, in an effort to save them. All in all, a bad move. (This isn’t in the book, but only three out of the 93 children survived and they weren’t tethered to any nuns). Whereas McCullough is an accomplished historian and a great writer, Larson writes historical bestsellers. Though popular with the book club crowd, his most purple “you are there” prose makes me want to talk back. Here’s a taste: “Plumes of hot wind baked apples in the trees.” “He heard the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze.” (Geez. Good thing these newfangled Kindle devices sport the Oxford-American Dictionary.)
3. Ship Ablaze by Edward T. O’Donnell. On June 15, 1904, an excursion steamboat, the General Slocum, caught fire in New York City’s East River, killing 1,021. The majority of victims— 800— were immigrant children who had been on their way to a church picnic and couldn’t swim. The few life boats and preservers aboard were either nailed down, or falling apart. The boat’s owners considered replacements a cumbersome expense; ditto the requisite number of fire hoses. It was cheaper to bribe inspectors. Interestingly, prior to the 9/11 attack on The World Trade Center, the General Slocum was the worst disaster to hit the NYC area in terms of loss of life, but to this day few people have heard of it (it being the poor man’s Titanic). This is no fault of O’Donnell’s. Like McCullough, he captures the time period and the corruption with insight, vigor and good writing.
4. The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein. “Thud, dead, thud dead, thud dead…” That’s an eyewitness description of burning girls, jumping to their deaths from the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on March 25, 1911. In eighteen minutes, 146 workers— 129 of them young immigrant women— died in this notorious sweatshop fire. After the blaze, skeletons hunched over sewing machines were typical of political cartoons at the time. Unlike Slocum, Triangle’s effect on the public’s imagination has endured, and no one has written a better book about the event (only one person has tried. There’s David Von Drehle’s, Triangle, if you can’t get enough). Stein, one of the best-ever labor journalists, writes the story almost in real time and it’s exciting stuff. He captures the hell and suspense of being trapped inside this tinderbox, at the hands of the stingy, evil owners, with an abundance of detail and an economy of words. Survivor and eyewitness testimonies assist Stein in rendering his scathing account.
5. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. I remember seeing this graffiti once in a doctor’s office, of all places: THE RAMONES— THE FIRST AND THE BEST, CHECK IT OUT. The same can be said of Walter Lord’s classic; a superb, truly definitive telling of that last night on the Titanic. A Night to Remember was ahead of its time; in fact, it’s the book from which all these others originated. Published in 1955, Lord assembled his breathtaking tale from the Titanic’s survivors and it shows. It’s lean and mean, compared to so many books nowadays that flood (no pun intended) this genre. The idiocy of narrative inventions (like James Cameron’s Jack and Rose) to convey class-based divisions, or the aforementioned, sissyish, book-clubby-prose, are thankfully absent here. FYI: When he was nine years old, Lord traveled on the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic. Also, he claimed when he wrote Night there was no mass interest in the Titanic. Can you believe it? The 1958 movie adaptation starring Kenneth More is equally fantastic.
6. The Kingdom of Auschwitz by Otto Friedrich. With so much about the holocaust in existence where does one begin? I say here. Because it’s a hell of a place to start. Friedrich, best known for what is probably the greatest book on Hollywood, City of Nets (it turned me into one of his devoted readers) is, in a word, a genius. He writes with depth and authority, and is able to raise the societal implications of events in ways most non-fiction writers can only dream about. I love his tangents. This book is short, but jam-packed with extremely vivid details of the horrors that were Auschwitz. You remember it as if it were a movie.
7. This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. Six hundred and twenty thousand. Imagine. In four years. Faust explores the influence this unprecedented death toll had on the United States “materially, politically, intellectually and spiritually.” Needless to say, the resultant grief was collective, massive and creepy. A huge body count can do that to a country. The book is full of fascinatingly morbid facts about, say, the invention of embalming fluid to preserve corpses on their way home from the battlefields, or about Lord and Taylor opening a “Mourning Store” to clothe the profusion of new widows. In demonstrating the impact on literary works, I didn’t agree with her choice of grouping Emily Dickinson with revolutionary Walt Whitman, and fellow genius Ambrose Bierce, but that’s nit-picky. I give Faust great credit for choosing the last two at all, and two out of three ain’t bad. Overall, the author makes the wholesale devastation palpable.
8. The Plague by Albert Camus. Yes, being a novel, this is an unorthodox choice, but again with hundreds of books out there on the Black Death (in which 25 million people in Europe perished alone) I decided to opt for a microcosm. However probable it was that Camus’ book served as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France (though he does go out of his way not to admit this in his Notebooks 1942-1951), it is also a fitting allegory for this list— and a good lead-in to the next book. Camus uses an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1940’s Oran, (on the Algerian coast) to demonstrate the variety of mankind’s reaction to disaster. It’s all in here— the initial downplaying by authorities reluctant to admit the outbreak’s gravity, misguided but ultimately deadly government policy, the profiteering, the violence, the panic, the impact of quarantine, and the lack of heroics. The book ends reminding us the plague “never dies or disappears for good, that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Maybe yours…
9. And the Band Played On: Politics, People And the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. Perhaps the one undeniable masterpiece on this list, And the Band Played On is an extraordinary combination of first-class investigative journalism, and page-turning, up-all-night, thriller-like storytelling. Shilts’ courageous, brutal chronicle of the AIDS pandemic exposes the political battles among members of both the gay and scientific communities, and the failures and prejudices of the U.S. Government that resulted in all too many lost lives. It’s a tremendous book.
10. The Magic Tree House Series by Will and Mary Pope Osborne. Don’t laugh at me. I know these books are for six-year-olds, because my daughter— having inherited the gene— came home daily from the first grade with stacks of them, or at least the ones devoted to earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, the Titanic, the San Francisco Fire etc. etc. I asked her teacher, perhaps projecting a bit, if I had anything to worry about, and he replied, “Oh, no-o-o. The children find these topics compelling.” (Phew!) I remember they always had alliteration in the titles, like Twister on Tuesday, Vacation Under the Volcano, or Tonight on the Titanic. In them, a brother and sister time travel via their magic tree house, to both real and mythical locales. Non-fiction companion books provide real facts about the real events and serve as great compact reference books. Needless to say, if you leave these things lying around my house, I’m going to read them. And, they were really good, so there. (And good for quick, little catharses). Besides, not everyone wants to waste their life even pretending they’re going to read seven volumes of Proust.