As the earth trembled

What did we learn from the 1906 San Francisco quake?

San Francisco residents, as well as the city's many distant admirers, take heed: The 1989 earthquake, which killed 67, shook the World Series, and caused $7 billion in economic damages, did not stem from a rupture in the San Andreas Fault.

Does that mean that the 1989 quake was an inevitable successor to the area's catastrophic 1906 earthquake?

"An unimaginably enormous amount of kinetic energy is currently stored in the rocks of the Bay Area," writes geologist Simon Winchester (also author of "Krakatoa" and "The Professor and the Madman"). "One day, and probably very soon, this energy will be relieved, without warning."

Translation: San Francisco is in peril, although nobody knows exactly when.

The U.S. Geological Survey, however, has a rough idea. In 2003, the survey declared a 62 percent probability that a major earthquake will hit San Francisco by 2032. Projected toll: $15.3 billion in damage to the city's buildings and $24.7 billion in direct economic losses.

It is typical of Mr. Winchester and his dull, maddening chronicle that these delicious tidbits are served up only at the end of A Crack in the Edge of the World, a book filled with enough geological minutiae to fell James Michener.

Winchester crisscrosses the country, eating drive-through meals and taking pointless side trips. Neil Armstrong is the only recognizable character in the first quarter of the book - and his appearance serves only to inform us of the author's visit to the astronaut's hometown.

He even throws in a digressive journey through Iceland in pursuit and explanation of theories and discoveries bridging continental plate development from, brace yourself, 3 billion years ago.

A typical example: "The world became steadily more complicated as time wore on. There were two further coalescences about 500 million years later on, when the continents now known as Baltica and Atlantica emerged, also then in the Northern Hemisphere." Passages like those beg the reader to shut the book and flee in desperate pursuit of Elmore Leonard.

There is perhaps too much professor and too little madman here. But the sad fact is that the principal characters aren't people at all.

They're rocks of too many ages. Shakespeare himself would be hardpressed to transform this landmass into a gripping read.

Still, when a natural- disaster tale written by a popular historian arrives in perfect disaster harmony (it follows hurricane Katrina's rampage as well as the earthquake in Pakistan), it would seem all but assured of rocking Barnes & Nobles across continental divides.

Not so fast, however. There are occasional nuggets, but, as the original Forty-Niners discovered, it requires Job-like patience to excavate mountains of unwanted material in search of a payoff.

Even the brief exploration of the 1989 earthquake - and projections for another on par with the 1906 geological shudder responsible for leveling 490 city blocks, killing 3,000 and causing three days of raging fires - leaves the reader disappointed. How prepared is the Bay Area for an earthquake now? Are the commuter bridges that collapsed in 1989 now capable of absorbing another hit?

Finally, at page 256, this reader escaped some but not all of the aftershocks caused by Winchester's San Andreas-sized fit of geological notebook-dumping. A taut sentence proves stunning after so much dross: "The scenes were utterly distressing: horribly mutilated victims, bewilderment, wailing and fear on all sides, violent patients tied to trees with sheets, screeching bloody murder."

The last 100 pages sustain hints of momentum, but it's too little, too late. Even these rare bright spots suffer intermittent bouts of insignifica. (Do we really need, or want, to learn of the Jesuits' lengthy relationship with seismographs?)

Here we read of the city's fire chief dying from injuries caused by a falling chimney striking him in his own bed. Also of interest: the hustles and scams concocted in the wake of the quake, the slipshod redevelopment, the inevitable decline as Los Angeles (in a relatively less volatile location) zooms past, all contemporary cool.

Yet again, the author can't help himself. A pointless Alaskan coda, replete with a journey to the famed oil pipeline, restores the narrative's road to nowhere. Amid the rubble of this plodding account a gripping tale could have been assembled, but "A Crack in the Edge of the World" suffers far too many faults to come anywhere close.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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