Hurricanes, History, and Writing

spaghetti graph

Hurricane Florence has left us dazed, confused, and waterlogged. As bad as it was, the shifting forecasts and endless revisions of the storm’s projected path only made it worse. Florence was supposed to march through North Carolina and douse Raleigh, instead, it hit Wilmington and slowly churned its way through South Carolina, spinning off tornados and flooding low-lying areas. Here in Charlotte, trees are down and many roads and yards are under water. Now comes the clean up. Yuck.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the heady days of the Enlightenment, learned individuals imagined they could predict and control both man and nature through science. French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace assured fellow scientists they could one day predict the exact movements of tides and storms — in fact, he went so far as to claim that the movement of every atom could be calculated.

Now we have both private industry and government departments armed with Cray supercomputers that can guzzle meteorological data from all over the world, digest it faster than Laplace ever dreamed, and spit out detailed predictions.

Problem is, those details are often wrong — just as we’ve just seen with Hurricane Florence.

A long, long time ago, I worked in the insurance industry as an analyst and project manager. Pretty handy with a computer, a long-time weather buff, and an instructor of statistics, I served on the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s Property Committee a number of years, where I studied long-range weather forecasts. Our mandate was to recommend and justify future rate proposals based on expected weather patterns. To make a long story short, I learned quickly that despite all our efforts, we were only guessing at future trends.

More famous experts have performed as badly, even worse. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” chronicles the greatest miscalculations in history, including America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was a whiz kid with a degree from Harvard Business School. Here’s how Tuchman summarizes McNamara’s mindset:

“Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through ‘statistical control’ … his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for the unpredictable.” (p. 285)

The military establishment Secretary McNamara guided was all too receptive. The commander of the US forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the years of escalation and certain victory, was William C. Westmoreland. Though later denounced as the “most disastrous American general since Custer,” Westmoreland was not ill-prepared for the job. He’d graduated West Point with the highest rank possible, first captain, and was America’s youngest major general ever. And he’d studied statistics at — Harvard Business School. In fact, his reliance on “kill statistics” overstated American success in Vietnam, setting up both the American military and public for a nasty confrontation with reality.

If US leaders had listened to historians rather than statisticians, and recognized that Vietnam’s ancient animosity against China precluded Communist Chinese control of an independent Vietnam, they could have avoided a tragedy. Instead, they relied on the dehumanizing scientism of B.F. Skinner to “stress” the Vietnamese into acting “rationally.” Despite the odds, first against the French, and then the Americans, the Vietnamese prevailed.

Sadly, those who would reduce people to a logical, globalized, and disconnected existence aren’t going to let a few tragic failures stop them. But no matter what they say or do, numbers alone cannot define humanity or nature. Humans stubbornly refuse to surrender purpose, identity, and emotional fulfillment. And we are not without weapons. Literature is a wild, throaty howl of defiance to those who would reduce us to formulas or pawns in their ideological schemes. And that’s a fact we can be sure of.

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Where the Western Meets Crime Fiction

John Larison argues that despite the different tropes they use and the different worlds they occupy, crime and Western stories share many structural similarities:

Both are about the triumph of good over evil. Early in a novel of either genre, we will see our protagonist encounter an injustice, usually the victim of crime (who may or may not still be breathing). Both novels will end when the scales of justice have finally been righted; the perpetrators of evil have met their due punishment. In a crime novel, justice usually comes in the form of a court of law. In the western, justice tends to be delivered by a bullet through the heart.

That’s a good start, but there’s more substance, nuance, and grit in both genres. Crime fiction includes many sub-genres, including cozies (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales) and classic whodunits (Ellery Queen). The reader can settle down with one of these books knowing that justice will inevitably prevail, just like in the Westerns. But then there are hardboiled and noir crime stories. While both feature violence in gritty, naturalistic settings, only hardboiled tales come close to the worldview of classic Western adventures.

In hardboiled crime tales, the protagonist shoots it out with the bad guys to protect the innocent and restore justice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an updated John Wayne battling the bad hombres of New York City. However, in noir tales, traditional justice is just as hard to find as an innocent victim. For example, Raymond Chandler paints a bleak view of human nature in his novels, with both the criminal underworld and the “respectable” upper class up to no good. In such a world, the protagonist has to settle for upholding his personal code of honor, justice for the innocent proving too elusive, if not illusory.

Some of the “crime-westerns” Larison cites in his article certainly don’t end with the good guy riding into the sunset after protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Just to name one example, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” ends with the bad guy, a sociopathic hit man, virtually unscathed and free, leaving behind the corpses of almost all the sympathetic characters. The sheriff who failed to catch the killer or protect the innocent acknowledges his uselessness at the end, and dreads the evil that’s spreading across the land he once loved and knew. Not exactly “Shane.” But, as Larison says, still wildly entertaining.

This day in history

H. P. Lovecraft was born on this date in Providence, Rhode Island. A self-taught science and astronomy buff, Lovecraft built upon the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe to pioneer and define what is now known as weird fiction and cosmic horror.

In addition to his many works of fiction, he was a prolific correspondent, notably with Robert E. Howard. His works continue to inspire both writers and moviemakers. Writers who acknowledge Lovecraft’s influence include China Miéville and Joyce Carol Oates. Lovecraft has also inspired indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, as well as Guillermo del Toro.

Chandler and Howard

Chandler and Howard

Raymond Chandler and Robert E. Howard had a lot in common, and I think acknowledging and appreciating their similarities help us to better understand and enjoy their thought-provoking works.

Both were successful pulp writers who are now viewed with much more respect than they were when they worked and lived. Chandler’s novels are now taught at the university level, and many writers cite Howard as a key influence. Stephen King, for example, once declared that “Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy.”

Chandler and Howard revolutionized their respective genres by energizing them with a stark, naturalistic picture of human nature and society. Not only were their stories more gritty and violent than what most of their predecessors wrote, they also injected grim views of society into their tales. Chandler’s Los Angeles is a hopeless, irredeemable jungle. In The Long Goodbye, he paints a bleak picture of the city’s upper class, which is just as prone to criminality as the lower classes. Howard, in Red Nails, imagines a dying city whose few survivors, despite their wealth and learning, wage an unrelenting and mutually destructive blood feud on each other.

The wild 1920s and desperate, corrupt 1930s shaped the world views of both writers. When Raymond Chandler moved to Los Angeles, it was a boom town whose explosive growth was fueled by Hollywood and the oil industry. He worked for the Dabney Oil Syndicate, where he got an eyeful of the dirty dealing and outright corruption in both the oil business and local politics. Robert E. Howard also witnessed the suffering and debauchery inflicted on men and women in oil boomtowns throughout Texas. He once confessed to one of his editors, “I’ll say one thing about an oil boom; it will teach a kid that Life’s a pretty rotten thing as quick as anything I can think of.”

Raymond Chandler’s most famous creation, detective Philip Marlowe, is a hardened, clear-eyed fighter who nevertheless will stick his neck out for the helpless. Marlowe repeatedly saves the drunkard Terry Lennox on several occasions in The Long Goodbye, despite the trouble Lennox always brings to those who get too close to him. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, though a ferocious brawler and swordsman out to make a fortune any way he can, including stealing and working as a mercenary, often risks his life to help others. While wandering lost in a deadly and perverted maze of demons and monsters in The Scarlet Citadel, Conan hears a piteous moaning, and “the suffering of the captive touched Conan’s wayward and impulsive heart.”

The tragic element in Conan and Marlowe is that both characters uphold a personal code of honor despite the hostility and unconcern of the outside world. That, plus crisp, forceful writing, makes their otherwise bleak adventures so endlessly fascinating and re-readable.

“Tuggle ably captures the spirit of Dan Brown novels and Indiana Jones–style adventure stories.” Kirkus Reviews

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