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Earthquake Tome Unfocused to a Fault

MAGNITUDE 8, Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault, by Philip L. Fradkin, A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt, $27.50, 336 pages


Philip L. Fradkin's "Magnitude 8" is a book of some ambition. A 20-year inhabitant of Northern California, Fradkin writes from the perspective, as he puts it, of "a fault-line resident." He sees himself as a literary geologist whose goal in this, his seventh book on the American West, is to take a journey across seismic time and space. He endeavors to convey the fault's "physical presence and its awesome power"; find the human dimension and positive contributions of earthquakes; and demonstrate how ill-equipped science is to deal with this rogue event that leaves "its imprint on psyches and seismographs" alike.

The completed work, however, is an example of a writer becoming so enamored of his research and travels that he has allowed them to submerge any clear narrative pattern. Although "Magnitude 8" is divided into chapters that focus, for the most part, on the state's more powerful earthquakes, Fradkin's digressions, anecdotes and statistics blur together in an unfocused and insufficiently mediated mass of material. While "Magnitude 8" contains a number of riches, the reader has to work at extracting them, rather like an old Gold Rush prospector dipping his pan into a fast-flowing California river.

In an opening that seems clearly modeled on Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," in which Schell imagined a nuclear bomb dropping on Manhattan, Fradkin begins by imagining a magnitude 8 earthquake striking San Francisco. He sees fish jumping out of a reservoir, joggers staggering and dropping to the ground, freeways buckling, phone lines going dead and lights going dark, fire erupting at broken natural-gas mains and dams cracking open to release a flood of water with enough force to "reduce all human and natural artifacts to bare earth." It is a nice effect, and it soon sends Fradkin to the source of all this hypothesized destruction, the 660-mile-long San Andreas fault.

The San Andreas fault runs from Point Delgada in the north to the Salton Sea, just short of the border. "A long scar incised along the soft underbelly of California," it is the most active of the many faults in the state that collectively form the juncture between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The fault is distinctive because of its remarkable continuity and because it is surrounded by a wide fault system.

Fradkin depicts major earthquakes from the past, among them those in Lisbon in 1755, New Madrid, Mo., in 1811, and such notable California earthquakes as Fort Tejon (1857), San Francisco (1906), Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994). He visits the fault at key intervals throughout the state and portrays cracked foundations, broken earth, beaches with mysterious black sand and diners that serve earthquake burgers. He discusses plate tectonics, the increasingly outmoded Richter scale, and the way earthquake prediction is at present out of fashion in the scientific community--out of fashion, the reader discovers, perhaps because it is still so far out of reach.

The most interesting idea threaded throughout "Magnitude 8" is one that Fradkin, unfortunately, never plumbs rigorously enough. Describing what he calls a "policy of assumed indifference," Fradkin gives various examples of Californian's almost willful short-term memory with regard to earthquakes. He demonstrates how, in the past--in some ways even today--earthquake damage has been covered up and minimized by the media and refocused by the "Panglossian" ("greedy" might be more accurate) attitudes of the state's businessmen.

Fradkin's writing is at its best when it is at its most specific and palpable. Near the end of the book he visits an actual underground fault in Hollywood, which has been made accessible by the recent subway excavations. He imagines that the constantly shifting earth under L.A. will one day "reclaim this light intrusion and grind it up."

Earlier in his travels Fradkin visits the Marina district in San Francisco, where, after the 1989 earthquake, pieces of charred wood rose to the surface of the former landfill--pieces charred, he surmises, during the fire that followed the earthquake of 1906.

"In California," Fradkin observes, "we are what lies beneath us; and we are never sure what that consists of."

Such uncertainty would seem to be an ineluctable component of the temperament, and the topography, that defines this ever-complex state.

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