Pushcart XLIII: Karen Russell, “The Tornado Auction” from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2017

The auction is a quarterly event, and until my retirement I attended every one. You’ll read in the papers that ours is a “graying community,” a defunct way of life. But on auction day, it never feels so. Scattered around the parking lot, over a hundred twitching, immature storms dimple the roofs of their trailers, like pipping chicks testing their shells. Their wailing surrounds and fills the barn, harmonizing with the hum of machinery. The viper pit of hoses, the blue convection modules stuck to every wall like big, square dewdrops—the various modern wet nurses that keep a developing storm alive. “Back in the Dark Ages, all we had to work with was liquid propane and the real wind,” my old man liked to remind me.
On my way in, I’d passed a quintet of freshly weaned storms, all sired by the same cumuliform supercell out of Dalhart. Beautiful orphans, thriving independently. I’d known this line of clouds my whole life; that Dalhart stud cell was famous when I was a kid. Its signature thunder went rolling through many a turbulent generation, and I smiled to hear it once more. In the refracted glow of such a shimmering lineage, you get the child-joy, the child-fever. I’ll turn seventy-four this March, and it doesn’t matter: that joy regresses you.

It’s a story that may lose some readers along the way. It kind of lost me, though I kept reading. And when, eventually, it turned, it hit me with the force of, yes, a tornado. I may have even gasped. I certainly ended up in tears when I realized what was really going on.

But back to the beginning: Bob Wurman, retired tornado farmer, goes to the storm auction and, spending his life savings, buys himself a baby tornado. Karen Russell has a talent for painting fantasy scenarios in real colors, and this is no exception. The auction, the purchase, Bob’s demeanor is very much like you’d expect from a farmer buying a colt or a calf or even a puppy to raise to champion status in some domain. The reaction of friends and family – they think he’s lost his mind – is likewise well-tuned to the aging-crackpot-goes-rogue trope.

Many literary science fiction stories gloss over the technical details, painting in broad strokes so as to avoid going afoul of real science. But Russell plows right into the thick of things. I was pretty skeptical; but I’ve been fooled before, so I googled around, and sure enough, artificial tornadoes do exist. The biggest one lives in a chamber in the Mercedes Benz Museum in Germany; the technology was developed to quickly eliminate smoke. Science nerds can even make their own tornado-in-a-box.

Russell takes this into fictional territory: in her world, storms somehow can be released from their containers, and have, in the past, been used for demolition work (aiming them is precision art) and for something called tornado rides. Both uses are now outlawed, so most of Bob’s fellow tornado ranchers have downgraded to wind farming – literally generating wind, not building windmills in areas that are naturally windy – with a few dirt devils sold to rodeos and the like. Bob misses the big stuff.

It’s interesting for those who might enjoy a glimpse of science, or the creation of alternate reality, but it goes on for a very long time before we get the first hint there’s something else at work here.

Raising a tornado, you are always dreaming of its dying day. That’s the breeders ultimate vision – to build a storm until its can unwind spectacularly, releasing all of its cultivated fury, evanescing before your eyes. Whereas with my daughters, I have to pretend they’ll live forever. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. If there is a life after this one, I’ll be dead myself and still pretending.
….
My oldest daughter was four pounds at birth, and her appearance flooded the earth with an infinite number of horrors and perils, a demonic surge of catastrophic possibilities out of all proportion to the tiny mass in my arms. Love unlids a Pandora’s box. …. They were born at the same moment, twins: our baby daughter and the dangers.

That’s the line that did me in – “love unlids a Pandora’s box.” This is the story’s point of connection with the Pam Houston essay that preceded it – to love is to risk, to know that it’s likely one’s heart will one day be broken. Yet we love anyway. And in this case, although it may be loving that breaks Bob Wurman, it is also, ultimately, loving that saves him.

I seem to have regained the spoiler-shyness I lost during the last BASS; the story is not available online, but I think the impact is much greater the less you know. The problem is that I fear too many readers will give up, will think it’s just a fancy sci-fi story about an old man getting his last chance at glory, and they won’t bother to wade through the weather talk to get to the heart of the matter. So I’ve tried to compromise with a strong hint.

For those who want a more writerly look at the story, I recommend Jake Weber’s analysis at Workshop Heretic. He goes into more detail about plot, the symbolism of the storms, and, most importantly, points out where the story itself teaches the reader how to read it. Because it isn’t about tornadoes, after all.

One response to “Pushcart XLIII: Karen Russell, “The Tornado Auction” from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2017

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