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A Genius for Disaster

William Widmer/The New York Times/Redux
Nathaniel Rich, New Orleans, 2012

The eastern US has been suffering from a prolonged and severe drought, a godsend for the fear prediction business, when a dark cloud, a boom of thunder, and a flash of lightning appear, and Rich’s eerie, unexpected, mischievous descriptions take off. “Beneath the cloud the sky was streaky and fish gray.” Then, “a gray curtain of rain drew across the Great Lawn [in Central Park]…. Angry fist-size droplets detonated on the ground…. The rain pelted like hurled stones.” This is obviously no ordinary shower, but the parched New Yorkers are oblivious to the threat pounding onto the dry, unreceptive ground. “Children extended their arms like prophets, their heads back and mouths open. They caught the rainwater until their cheeks were full and then spouted it out like cherubic fountain statues.” Even Mitchell and Jane dance in the downpour. But Mitchell soon realizes that the parched earth cannot absorb the rain, that a hurricane is on its way, that there is risk, real risk, imminent risk.

In the rainy euphoria, he is the only one to recognize the danger. The Channel 4 weatherman “in his high-pitched ecstasy…swayed back and forth, his legs pressed tightly together, like Tweedledum. He appeared not to have urinated since the storm first glided onto his Doppler.” Mitchell warns his latest, skeptical client, a “slumped batrachian form at the head of the table. It was Lady Madeline D’Espy herself, the company’s founder, whose legendary beauty hadn’t faded so much as expired,” so terrified himself that he terrifies her into action.

Rich is a gifted caricaturist and a gifted apocalyptist. His descriptions of the vagaries of both nature and human nature are stark, fresh, and convincing, full of surprise and recognition as both good comedy and good terror must be. Where he sometimes struggles a bit is, perhaps, in his portrayal of the emotions, both comic and tragic, that are called love. Mitchell’s obsession with Elsa Bruner feels more important to the book’s theme of fear than it does to Mitchell himself. Is it love? Is it protectiveness? Is it fascination with someone so impervious to fear? Or is it there to allow us to ask these questions? His relationship with Jane has more to it, but none of this matters too much, for the emotional power and urgency in this novel come from the outside. The stormy sky above, the quaking earth below, the roiling seas—these provide the passionate heat and icy cold that lovers provide in romantic novels. In Odds Against Tomorrow, these are the elements, literally, that sustain and betray us.

By the time Mitchell and Jane reach Sutton Place in the Psycho Canoe, they have begun to manically sing camp songs

to dispel the sepulchral silence…. The sleepy residential neighborhood had acquired a kind of diseased Venetian charm. The ornate battlements and bay windows of its town houses were reflected in jaundiced tints on the oil-streaked water.

The two refugees eventually leave their canoe for a bus to Maine, trying to find Elsa, finding instead a utopian farm devolving into an adult version of Lord of the Flies. They eventually return to New York, where they live in a FEMA trailer camp set up for evacuees. Mitchell, as the only one to have recognized the danger of the hurricane, the only one to have predicted its devastating effect, has become a celebrity, and Jane translates his fame into a new and immensely valuable company. “‘There are profits to be made,’ said Jane, ‘in being prophets.’”

Indeed, Mitchell is soon hailed as a prophet, is called “the Prophet,” and is swamped by desperate, frightened people wanting to know what comes next. The clients want to know and are willing to pay even more than before. So do the other people in the FEMA camp, where “a fog of high irritation had fallen…. Hysteria, too—it buzzed in the air like a cloud of wasps. Occasionally the buzzing blistered into violence.”

Mitchell, a kind of anti-Pangloss, escapes danger on his travels and adventures through his imperturbable pessimism, his sense, his certainty that all will not be well. And like Candide, he ends up if not contentedly then at least industriously tending his own garden. Leaving FEMA island, he and Jane escape by taking Hell Gate over Bronx Kill (“I don’t like the sound of that,” someone remarks) to Flatlands, a remote neighborhood (no subway service, even without flooding) in the southeast part of Brooklyn. Even in the names of its railroad bridges and waterways, New York has taken on an apocalyptic identity.

Mitchell becomes an urban pioneer farmer. In the wasteland of Flatlands, he retreats from his predictions, from his fears, into an abandoned bank building. He plants a garden in an adjoining lot. Jane goes back to Manhattan, but Mitchell is no longer fit for his old life or anything like it. His beard grows and he looks the part of a prophet, but he is no longer in the prophecy business—Jane runs that for him. He is busy building a wall. At first it is to keep the rats out, then the larger animals who roam the area, then the largest animals:

Yes, it would be important to build the wall high. At least to the height of a tall human being. It was impossible to know what was lurking in this wilderness—or who.

Mitchell is no longer obsessed with the future or with his fears. He is obsessed with order:

Think of it as a geometry problem. The first step was demarcation: draw the x- and the y-axes, name the variables. Most important of all, define the boundaries. Otherwise you were just beckoning chaos.

This lonely walled-in complex is a long way from the boardrooms and high-rises of the past. But it keeps him going. He bathes in a muddy, silty creek, delighted that he does not worry about the mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and sewage that surely drift across his submerged head. He is calm, exhausted by his hard labor in his field, the only sense of time coming from the light. “The general sensation was of mindlessness. He didn’t know what he was going to do next, though that didn’t bother him. All that mattered was that he was now doing something.”

His beard is now in “Elderly Wino” territory, full of bits of dirt and food. He refuses to see anyone but Jane. But his enclave has become the center of a back-to-the-earth movement, settlers hiking in with backpacks and building “hackneyed, unprofessional, ramshackle homes with mismatched walls and askew floors straight out of Dr. Seuss.” Another utopian community bound to fail? Maybe. A contented Candide tilling his patch of soil, home at last? We’re not sure. And if there were times when, like his mother, I too wanted to tell Mitchell to take a nice walk in the park and cut it out with the idle reveries, already, I remind myself that Mitchell is young and has time to sow his wild Flatlands oats. Then I remember something else: that climate change is changing everything and, as Mitchell points out, giving Jane a new slogan: “Future Days: because the future is not quite what it used to be.”

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