by Paul Quarrington
ISBN: 0679312366

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A Review of: Galveston
by Paul Keen

I was fortunate that my adolescence coincided with a particular string of Hollywood movies, all of them equally forgettable and, with the perverse logic that is adolescence, equally memorable. Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure. I was not quite the minimum recommended age, which is to say, I was the perfect age. I loved every minute of them. They worked because they followed a reliable formula. A small group of people thrown into extraordinary circumstances through sheer bad luck. Together they face the kind of pressure that inspires heroism or, more frequently, exposes the cracks in people's psyches. And these movies worked because, apart from certain carefully bracketed moments when characters wrestled with their inner demons or (maybe for the first time in their lives) contemplated salvation, they didn't get too deep.
Peter Quarrington's Galveston could be one of those movies. It follows the harrowing experience of seven people trapped on Dampier Cay, a small Caribbean island, in the path of Hurricane Claire. Except that Quarrington's novel takes the formula behind these movies to its comic and at times tender limits. Saul Bellow once said of Los Angeles that it felt like every loose screw in America had ended up there, as though someone had tilted the country over and everything that wasn't properly bolted down had rolled until it reached L.A. But they didn't all end up in L.A. Some of those loose screws make up the principal characters of Quarrington's novel. For one thing, three of them have flown to Dampier Cay by choice in order to place themselves in the path of the hurricane. They're part of a small but obviously disturbed fraternity known as weather chasers, people who get a certain thrill from the intensity of storms, and who make surviving them into something of an extreme sport. Quarrington makes the most of this angle, revelling in the love of trivia which unites any group of people who share an obsession. "Take Hazel," one of them is fond of saying, steering conversations around to Toronto's Hurricane Hazel whether his listeners are remotely interested or not. Galveston itself-the site of a deadly hurricane in 1900 which permanently reshaped the Gulf Coast-is a sort of historical myth repeated by two of the characters in a strangely eroticised scene of sublimation.
The star of the storm chasers is unquestionably Jimmy Newton, a kind of meteorological Evil Knevil driven by damn-the-torpedoes chutzpah and a grade nine locker-room sensibility. Known as Mr. Weather, a regular on Miami AM, consulted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, adored by his legion of fans, he strides fearlessly into the path of every storm he can find, armed with his camera and a battery of the latest communications equipment ready to relay his experiences to his internet followers. The real focus of the story, however, are Beverly and Caldwell, a couple of ancient mariners who have taken to filling the "black holes" in their psyches by seeking out the intensity of storms. King Lear would be proud of them, though as the saying goes, they are no King Lear. Beverly's lurid family past and proclivity for bizarre behaviour has made her the talk of Orillia, significantly impairing her efforts at dating. Caldwell's career as a gym teacher in Barrie was not so much a job as a calling, the ne plus ultra of life after his junior hockey career. He is the winner of a sixteen-million-dollar lottery prize, a windfall that caused his life to fall apart. Scarred veterans of life's struggles, with a thing for storms, they seemed destined to meet, a convergence which predictably adds spice to Galveston's mix. Sexual titillation was a crucial element of the movies this book reminds me of (or so my adolescent memories suggest), and in this as in other things, Quarrington does not veer too far off the beaten path, though he does manage to do some interesting things with it.
The three weather watchers are joined by Gail and Sorig, young women with "a lot of energy, and a lot of luggage." Their profoundly unoriginal characters form a crucial counterpoint to the obsessiveness of the other three. Gail and Sorvig's virtue is their honesty, which in their case is a function of their banality. What they expect in a holiday is a good time, by which they mean sex, preferably with someone who has a good body and good moves on the dance floor. Being straightforward types, they are more than a little annoyed that their holiday, already ruined by a lack of eligible men, is about to take a turn for the worse when Claire reaches shore. They're convinced that the other three, who have flown to Dampier Cay on purpose to be battered by the hurricane, are not dealing with a full deck. And actually, they're right, though this insight does not quite qualify them as the novel's moral centre.
They're not, on the whole, an inspiring bunch, which is precisely Quarrington's ironic design: the barely quotidian forced to distinguish itself in the midst of sublime terror. But then, Dampier Cay itself isn't much of an island: "a narrow strip of land, a few miles long, that nature pushed forth from the water for no good reason." It was named by William Dampier, who was the Royal Cartographer though he spent most of his time buccaneering. Even Dampier seemed embarrassed by the island, leaving it off his maps, placing "a large and ornate C to begin the word Caribbee" where the island ought to have appeared. The nice hotel is on the south end of the island, from which CNN reporter Seth Wallaby covers the storm, his trench coat flapping photogenically in the wind as the storm approaches. Our characters check into the more down market Water's Edge, where they cast their fortunes with three of the island's misfits-Polly, who owns the hotel; her lover and helper, the inscrutable Maywell Hope; and Lester, the quirky charismatic-preacher-without-a-parish who has a soft spot for rum.
As the hurricane approaches and the mood intensifies, Galveston oscillates between flashbacks which reveal more of Beverley and Caldwell's past and an action-filled account of the group's current struggles. Quarrington handles the pace well, managing a deft balance between off-beat humour and melodrama. There is enough science to make the action believable, and enough action (of all kinds) to keep us interested in a story about characters who, apart from Beverley and Caldwell with their traumatic histories, are as individuals fairly uninteresting. It won't end up as a movie (The Perfect Storm beat it to that honour) but it succeeds, in a way that is simultaneously forgettable and memorable, by managing to stay close to a formula from which it also maintains a certain ironic distance.

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