Graphic Novel Round-up: Kiki de Montparnasse
Friday Five: 15 Awesome Victorians

Underground Reading: Tropical Disturbance by Theodore Pratt

Tropical DisturbanceNature always wins. That's the short form of the lesson from Theodore Pratt's Tropical Disturbance (1961). The novel is an example of disaster fiction: a group of people are isolated by horrendous circumstances and forced to fight their way to survival. More than that, Tropical Disturbance belongs to the subset of natural disaster fiction, with all the immediate and obvious themes therein. 

The town of Coquina Beach and its many ludicrous denizens all learn the power of nature the hard way. Hurricane Jane not only crushes the seawall of the Coquina Beach, but also the walls that men build around themselves. Etc. Etc. Insert heavy-handed metaphor here (and on pages 2 - 147, inclusive).

In the land of Mr. Pratt's design, the good'uns and the bad'uns are easily distinguishable from the first pages, making Tropical Disturbance less a moral experiment and more wind-powered schadenfreude. The book opens on one of each. Jay (black hat) and Nina (white hat) are "damn Yankees", Northerners that have moved down to Florida for various reasons (stated: "vacation", implied: "rapine of the pristine coastline").

They're dating, but Jay wants more - marriage, possession and (mostly) sex. Nina, in one of those stilted conversations that only happens in mildly prurient 1950s literature, explains to Jay that she'd "like to sleep with the man I was going to marry, so we'd each know what we were getting. But I can't do that and remain a virgin." (12) 

Caught in that horny dilemma, Nina remains pristine - despite the best efforts of Jay (who crushes her with kisses sometimes with tongue). Things are further complicated by the arrival of Miley (a man, just to be clear) - native "Florida cracker", soft-spoken, oh-so-manly and super-competent. Miley likes Nina. Nina likes Miley. Jay hates everyone. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a plot!

And the plot? She thickens. Jay's also been boinking the fair-haired neighbor-lady, Grace. She's a "merry widow" of 29 and Coquina Beach's resident sex pest. Her husband having expired, Grace lures the local men (some paid for) around for some serious sinnin'. Although obviously set up as a villain, Grace is oddly admirable. With the exception of Miley (the book's [boring] hero), Grace is the only person that's true to her own nature from start to finish. We see this when the hurricane hits. Everyone else polarizes, degenerating into madness or ascending to sainthood. Grace? She's got a young man and a full bottle of whiskey - that's all she wanted before Jane strikes, while she struck, and after (we assume) the storm is long gone. 

Sadly, Grace is undermined by two problems. First, she gallivants around with Jay pretending she's Nina. Jay will go on a date with Nina, pressure her for sex, fail miserably, call Grace, and then bully Grace into re-enacting the same scene (successfully). It's delightfully creepy, but, betrays Grace's persona as a free spirit. For all her talk about independence, she's willing to do anything for Jay, even subordinate herself to another woman in his mind. Second, Grace is overly evangelical as to her "natural" lifestyle. Being gutsy about sex is one thing, but she's prone to getting drunk and lecturing that "American women are too emancipated... they have started to dominate their men, and I hold it isn't a natural way of things." These are ham-fisted lectures, serving only to exacerbate her role as a villain.

Finally, there are Nina's parents: Harold and Hope. Harold was an advertising man, but a heart attack has lead to his early retirement (and Florida residency). Hope is a nutball and a misogynist's voodoo doll. Once a feisty, sex-loving, perfect wife, she's gone through The Change in Life and her hurrmones are making her all crazy in the head. She can't lift objects. She can't take care of herself. She can't hold down a conversation. She's got some form of dementia. She's upset by the slightest (and I mean slightest) stress. She's developed diabetes. And she doesn't even like sex any more. Hope cringes and wails her way through the book, the combination of eternal victim and spoiled child. Her defining moment is when, mid-hurricane, she sneaks into the kitchen and, like a five year old, eats half a chocolate cake. She doesn't tell anyone and because it is scary, she skips taking her insulin for two days. She's more surprised than anyone when her system starts breaking down. Probably because she's written as a complete moron.

Hope is the worst of the book's three women. Nina puts sex on a pedestal (but will have it with the man she loves) and Grace has sex too much (but at least enjoys it).  However, poor Hope is no longer a sexual object at all. As far as her family is concerned, she's either pitiable or a nuisance. She might as well walk into the sea. Her constant screaming and whining is merely a substitute. The Change in Life has made her "defective". Why else would anyone pay attention to her? 

Mr. Pratt sets up this network of sexual tension and stultifying marriages and gives every indication that the status quo - however shambolic - could very well run forever. Nina's in no hurry to make a decision between rapey Jay and hillbilly-savant Miley. Harold and Hope are a perfect combination of insanity and resentment. Grace is having a lovely (if somewhat incoherent) time with her whiskey and second-hand lovers.

Hurricane Jane serves as both conflict and catalyst. The conflict role is quite simple. She blows stuff up. Windows, cars, houses... Jane's a beauty of a storm. The procedure is quite simple. Someone (generally Hope) panics. Someone else (generally Miley) says something like, "weeeeell, [spit] she ain't really bad until the wind strips the cars and turn them inside out [stuffs hands in pockets] [cures cancer]." Then, guess what? All the cars on the block are turned inside out. Hope screams more, Jay sulks, Nina gazes longingly and Miley goes on to develop cold fusion. 

Eventually, and mostly through Hope's devising, the group has to face the storm head-on. This rare moment of direct action provides a much-needed bit of catharsis for the book as a whole. After reading a dozen chapters of Jay's futile rage and Nina's endless dithering, dodging flying trees feels like Christmas come early.

However, Hurricane Jane's primary role is that of catalyst. The storm drives everyone to their breaking point and all the carefully cultivated artificial relationships come to a head. Jay screams at Nina. Nina screams at Jay. Miley and Nina smootch. Harold screams at Hope. Hope screams at herself. It is both therapeutic and incredibly noisy. (Grace, to her credit, gets drunk and passes out.) The theme is - as it is in virtually every work in this subgenre - when disaster strikes, one's true nature outs. In Tropical Disturbance the characters were never hidden from the reader, but Jane at least gives them an excuse to out themselves to one another.

Tropical Disturbance has a rare few action scenes but the vast majority of the book is spent establishing the characters. Despite that work, Mr. Pratt's approach is far too clinical. The cast talk in monologues rather than than meaningful exchanges (Nina's joking banter with Miley's father might be the one exception, and those few pages accomplish volumes in making her a likable character). Mr. Pratt explains both motivation and weather patterns like they're a product of the same laboratory science. It dehumanises the characters and reduces them to ambulatory case studies. For a book packed with sex, violence and whirling winds, the result is strangely boring.