What Tony Horwitz did for Confederate re-enactors, poet Svenvold does for storm chasers.
Svenvold (Elmer McCurdy, 2002, etc.) got interested in tornados when, during a trip to Oklahoma (the state whose “unofficial breakfast [is] a cigarette stubbed out in a doughnut”) the New Yorker experienced one himself. The twister caught his attention, and in this entertaining and fast-paced work of narrative journalism, Svenvold takes readers into the curious subculture of storm chasing. His guide into the twister world is a geography grad student and storm chaser named Matt Biddle, who moved from Ohio to Oklahoma in 1987, just to get closer to big weather. People like him attend National Storm Chaser conventions, and some of them move from hobbyist to entrepreneur, founding companies that, say, take pictures of extreme weather to sell to, say, tire companies for use in ads. “It’s like sports,” Biddle explains—some people follow college basketball, others follow tornadoes. Svenvold does a little chasing himself. He and Biddle spend May of 2004 chasing storms, hurtling through Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, and winding through the Texas Panhandle (Texas, it turns out, has more tornadoes than any state in the union). But the book, thankfully, isn’t just an adrenaline-fueled running after storms. Svenvold throws in a bit of history: America’s first storm chaser may have been Benjamin Franklin, who in August 1755 ran down a muddy lane in Maryland, following a tornado for over a mile. He offers a surprisingly serious and interesting discussion of why so few houses in Oklahoma have basements, and gives a leavening recognition of how much damage big weather can cause. His critiques of the Weather Channel—they’ve pussy-footed around with global warming, their female meteorologists look like porn stars, and they seem to pander to a voyeuristic interest in weather disasters—are fascinating. Svenvold even makes the topic of catastrophe insurance engaging.
At turns wacky, macho and whimsical. A literary version of Twister.