Book Review: Quake, Rudolph Wurlitzer (1972)

Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1974 edition

3.75/5 (Good)

Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Quake (1972) parades the traumatized victims of a near-future earthquake through a lust-filled black comedy. Wurlitzer deftly re-purposes the language of erotica for distinctly un-pornographic ends: the aimlessness of life transmutes into a priapic shuffle towards nothing.

Brief Summary

In the near future an earthquake destroys Los Angeles. A nameless transient (N), a recent transplant to the city’s “rituals and corruptions” (3), wakes to a scene of carnage. N stumbles from his cheap cabin, with a bed sheet tied around his waist, towards the hotel pool. Stretched out on the diving board, he observes hotel cabins collapse disgorging the sad dramas playing out within. A woman joins him on the diving board and attempts to converse. He refuses to give his name: “we’re overloaded as it is” (11).

As people cluster around the pool, some weeping and others bemoaning the collective inability to understand the human toll, N gets caught up in an uncomfortable but hilarious erotic adventure on the diving board… Soon he’s entangled with “three or four other bodies as they thrashed among the sheets and tried to climb onto the diving board” (17). When another aftershock causes the water to drain from the pool, he takes shelter in a cabin with a family reenacting their endless failures and shattered dreams and perverse desires.

Possessed by “a manic carnivorous force” N journeys into the wrecked streets (33). Increasingly unable to communicate, surreal event leads to surreal event. Militias spontaneously emerge with guns and vague ideas of sanctioned violence: “‘Is this a war or what?’ [the man] began to cry. ‘I thought this was an earthquake'” (41). The armed reenact scenes reminiscent of the Japanese treatment of American prisoners in the Philippines, marching herded victims from place to place to place… Humiliated. Huddled. N finds himself parroting justifications for the chaos (54). Falling victim to an inevitable gravity, N peers into a crevice caused by the quake. His companion asks him “what do you think is down there?” and N responds, “Nothing” (103). Retreating within, his own voice fades away and only grunts remain.

Final Thoughts

The seedy Americana of L.A. is the perfect backdrop for a violent lurch towards cataclysm. The land of dreams lays bare its maggot-ridden wounds camouflaged by “palm trees and orange juice bars” (10). N can only slip inward as the exterior world blurs, his limbs taking on a primal movement of their own. The elite and downtrodden play out their anguished impulses.

Wurlitzer uses small details to great effect. Noting the clothing of the gun toting militias–“blood-stained white yachting pants and pale blue alpaca sweaters (58)–he suggests the elite will not resist an excuse to play out fantasies of power. The landscape itself is populated by unconscious movements of those in shock–a belly “shook, as if his insides were out of control” (61), a woman taps “because there’s a nerve jumping around in her broken arm” (46), and N grasps for “stuffed elephant” when an aftershock roils a city block (43).

I find myself drawn to 70s visions that redeploy the language of the erotic as parables of collapse. As with Barry N. Malzberg, Wurlitzer fills the pages with surreal and uncomfortable humor. Quake reveals the inability of humanity to grasp the reality of mass cataclysm.

Recommended only for fans of surreal 70s visions of trauma. I suspect Quake will find fans with readers of Barry N. Malzberg and J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973).

Uncredited cover for the 1st edition

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Quake, Rudolph Wurlitzer (1972)”

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      If I were to pick an opposite disaster story to Death of Grass it would be this one. Quake is an experimental/surreal/hyper violent black comedy with sequences one might describe as pornographic…. hence my comment about repurposing the language of erotica. Christopher, in generally bland 50s prose, was going for a realistic depiction of the struggle for survival — and the veneer of civility.

      I am not a fan of Death of Grass. There’s a short review on my site: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/12/31/short-book-reviews-harry-harrisons-captive-universe-1969-john-christophers-the-death-of-grass-1956-nancy-kress-an-alien-light-1987-and-joe-haldemans-mindbridge-197/

      I prefer Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965): https://sciencefictionruminations.com/?s=a+wrinkle+in+the+skin

      1. Thanks! I am no stranger to your website and reviews, so I will check out A Wrinkle in the Skin. You normally steer me towards all things worthwhile in literature. I just finished Candy Man and found your review spot-on.

        1. Definitely glad you decided to join the discussion. I often enjoy the conversations in the comments more than the book itself! And feel free to argue against my reviews as well if you disagree — I love seeing different sides. For example, what did you find compelling about Death of Grass (I struggled to formulate my thoughts on it and ended up writing a short blurb review instead although I had taken notes etc.)?

          1. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it. The most that stuck me was how the main character goes from surveying his day to day job sky high in a crane to hear a blurb on the news, from a colleague, reporting vegetation dying off in spots around the world (or maybe Australia, can’t remember at the moment). Not much time passes before everything goes to hell. Christopher’s prose worked for me, as I’ve always been a nut for anything regarding 50-60’s homemade bomb shelter literature/memorabilia and the like. With the way things are currently, I can’t help asking myself sometimes, just when is the other shoe going to drop? Is it in this news hour report? How about on my way home from work? Guess that could fit in with the tone of the novel.

            Mind I’m not the prepper type… In my reading up on bomb shelter relics, I’m always amazed that it seems most people seemed to forget about the simple need of a toilet (at least in the beginning years). Thus getting me thinking “How the heck can anyone prep for the endless possibilities of the world/society going to crap”?

            Also, the ending of Death of Grass paints a starker picture, as the fact that even sometimes knowing the right people in these situations may not grant you the reprieve you hoped for. Safety and salvation also seems temporary and comes at unwanted costs.

            Rambling here. Sorry. Trying here to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet. I’ll reread soon, but now half way through The Web Of The Chozen by Jack L. Chalker.

            All the best

            1. I’m also a fan of 50s-60s bomb shelter ephemera. I have the Life Magazine with the infamous JKF letter warning Americans to invest in their own personal shelters as the government bill to create municipal ones was far to massive…. I have a weird dream of buying a 50s house and discovering a bomb shelter filled with supplies out back! Hah. Other than my weird dream, I’m 100% approaching my interest in the era from a historian’s standpoint (I have a PhD in History although in a different area altogether).

              Ehh, don’t worry about spoilers. This site contains spoilers in every single one of my reviews — readers should browse at their own risk!

  1. I can see the Ballard influences—tho its sounds less clinical than his style. In turn i wonder if it was an influence of Delany’s Dahlgren?

    1. You are definitely correct, Quake is less concise than Ballard. This feels more like a counter-culture novel collided with a disaster tale.

      On a side note, Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote the script for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Just as the film was a revisionist western, Quake is a revisionist take on disaster fiction….

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