The Man Who Caught the Storm
The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras
By Brantley Hargrove
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $26

Reviewed by John Timpane

If you have ever seen a tornado in person, you know. Dark, explosive, pitiless, destructive, tornadoes are nature at its inhuman extreme, arousing awe and terror, the ultimate in the untamable and unknowable.

The front cover of The Man Who Caught the Storm – a gorgeous, lowering photo of a man readying his camera for a nascent funnel – plus the title tell us we're about to read something beautiful, something wild, and something tragic.

Also something true. Tim Samaras (the man in the photo) was a self-taught engineer and scientist (of a sort) drawn by what even he called an "obsession" to track and study tornadoes, starting in Colorado and lured inescapably into the Texas-Dakotas Tornado Alley, where some of the most savage storms in history have struck. With no training, with mainly his own wits and courage, he became a legend. He began in early days, well before the communication-age drones, sensors, and satellites that are now the meteorologist's stock tools. He invented many techniques and equipment that storm chasers and weather people carry with them into the field. He was an original, a person sensitive enough to the inexpressibly complex behavior and formation of cataclysmic weather that he could see things others could not.

The Man Who Caught the Storm is, amazingly, Brantley Hargrove's first book. He invents a kind of writing as tempestuous, fearful, poetic, and concrete as his subject. A massive catastrophe bears down on the little town of Jarrell, Texas:

When it finally appeared on the northern horizon at about 3:40 p.m., it was a sight townspeople would resummon in their dreams for years to come. Bristling with debris and blackened with rich soil scoured from the fields, it looked ancient and immutable, its sooty wings spread wide. What it looked like was the end of the world.

We learn about the storm chaser's world, the science of meterology, the exquisite difficulty of unlocking the secrets of the tornado (still not fully understood), the history and lore. Hargrove knows just how to package all this knowledge: It's always interesting, often entertaining.

I'm not going to tell you he doesn't overwrite a little. There are a bunch more adjectives in this book than there need to be, and at times the already innately dramatic is overdramatized. But when going well, Hargrove puts you there and you can't get out. Many a novel is not written this memorably.

He can lower the volume and write simply, especially when there are simple things to tell, as with, for example, wife Kathy's questions about her husband's pursuits: "What was he looking for out there? What did he expect to find?"

That, of course, is the question, and probably not even Samaras himself could have answered it. At a certain point, he realizes the risk he must court if his efforts are to have a chance: "He will have to wait until he hears the roar. He will have to watch it come on, until he can see the debris and soil lifting in the vortex."

People not only do these things; they can't wait to do them. Samaras, "a man who had to walk the edge," was that way. As he joins a team probing a monster storm in South Dakota, a truck windshield is almost entirely filled with a vortex whose manifestation from one instant to the next is utterly novel, a transfixing, hypnotic sight. It is a reminder that a tornado isn't an object. … It isn't a thing; it's a process, a wholesale distribution of pressure and air.

Much as with Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man, from the beginning you have a terrible, and justified, and correct notion of where this tale will go. In Brantley Hargrove, a writer to watch, the life of Tim Samaras has gotten a storyteller worthy of all its curious, brilliant, devastating grandeur.