Books: Tainted Air

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STORM—George R. Stewart—Random House ($2.50).

The hero of this exciting novel is not human. Its hero is a storm. This storm lived twelve days. It became as large, before it was done, as the U.S. Its snows and rains and brutal airs brought death directly to 14 people, indirectly to hundreds; destroyed billions of locust eggs and averted a plague; ended a drought, flooded a valley, threatened the city of Sacramento; endangered an airplane, stalled a crack train. Before it died it gave birth to another storm which, in its ripeness, did spectacular work in New York City. In its birth, its life, its reproduction, its death, it worked in intimate counterpoint with the shapes and shifts of air upon the whole surface of the planet.

The supernumeraries in this novel include a 300-year-old tree trunk which shatters transcontinental telephone connections, an owl whose electrocution weakens a wire, a boar whose drowning plugs a culvert and washes ballast from a canyon railroad track, a young telephone linesman, a power dispatcher, a highway superintendent for the Donner Pass section of U.S. 40, a junior meteorologist, a plane pilot, the flangers-and the dangerous steam rotaries which clear the railroad lines of snow, a dam superintendent, the men who handle the highway plows . . . men, beasts and things, in short, infinitesimally at work against the enormous collusions of air, water, sun, earth, and subtlest chance.

Storm must be credited with the most magnificent idea behind a book this year. The storm itself (which was entirely invented, but carefully checked for accuracy) becomes absorbing as few human characters, in fiction, ever are. It is a splendid job of research and design. It is also a terrible job of writing.

Author George Stewart writes like an associate professor of English at the University of California, which he is. His human beings, scarcely human, sport such names as "Big Al" and "Dirty Ed" (author's quotes) and speak such atrocities as "Crise-tamitey." Blizzards "hold sway"; men "sally forth." Even his fascinating meteorological material is doctored with the characteristic cheapening devices of a lecturer who is accustomed to talking down. That the book can succeed at all against such malpractice is a tribute 1) to neatness and effort, 2) to the plain grandeur of the subject. Its literary honors will be few; and its royalties belong, by rights, to thin air.

*Flangers shear snow from the inside of rails.