THE MYTH OF SOLID GROUND: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith

By David L. Ulin

Viking. 290 pp. $24.95

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that I know David Ulin and admire him very much. He has been in my house once, as part of a judging committee; I have never been in his. What I can say is that I've been aware of his career since he came out here to Los Angeles to make an intellectual life; I've seen him grow from an enthusiastic youth to a thoughtful man of letters. I was eager to read and review his book, not because he's a buddy of mine, but because I wanted to know what he thinks about earthquakes -- the defining physical phenomenon here in California.

Yes, we have floods: Governmental agencies got so freaked out by Los Angeles River floods perhaps 70 years ago that what was once a river is now a great big concrete gorge where we can see our governor -- in a vastly different life -- zipping up and down on a motorcycle as the Terminator. And yes, we have fires, but they bear a passing, civil relationship to what we call reality. Mike Davis, author of "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster" and self-styled authority on California, has often railed about the hubris of humans who elect to build homes in the state's beautiful hills and mountains. Chaparral burns, Davis reasons, and those who have homes up there deserve to burn along with it. (The thought behind all this is: Who do we think we are? Why do we think we have a right to not live in five-story walk-ups in climates where sleet comes down all the time or you boil to death in humid summer? If we're destroyed by fire or flood, by God, we deserve it.)

Earthquakes are different. Yes, they act up here in California, but there are scary faults in Nebraska and Georgia, too. And in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, China, Japan. The humans who live there can't all deserve God's wrath. Still, the disconnect between disaster and enchantment, between Heaven and Hell, exerts a powerful hold on the Californian (and American) imagination. "This place is just too beautiful to exist," a friend of Ulin's says early on in this narrative, and that statement is hard to disagree with.

Ulin is drawn powerfully to almost every aspect of earthquakes and earthquake lore, perhaps because they elude our grasp almost entirely. Even Mike Davis at his most crabby can't blame quakes on us -- they happen all over the world. Certainly the inhabitants south of Anchorage in 1964 couldn't have been sinning enough to merit a 9.2 quake. Or those thousands of depressed Iranians always digging out relatives from stones that have turned from homes back into stones again. Quakes are way too much like manifestations of God -- if there is a God, if he has his mind on quakes.

And like desperately anxious humans trying to figure out the whims and iffy tempers of an Old Testament God, scientists, predictors and ordinary people alike try to make sense of those times when time stops and the earth roars, shaking humans across its surface like a bad, mean dog with too many fleas.

Ulin is fascinated by the entire process. He is struck early on by the idea that quakes are one phenomenon where facts and faith meet, collide and often merge. He hangs out at the office of the U.S. Geological Survey adjacent to the campus of Cal Tech -- with all the formidable science that institute provides. He introduces us to its spokeswoman, the iconic Lucy Jones -- who, if you live in Southern California, ranks just below the Blessed Virgin in the respect and affection she inspires, since it is Jones they invariably stick in front of the television cameras after every quake. It's Jones who explains it to us and reminds us in the kindest possible way that we're still alive. We've seen her turn from insouciant adolescent to a bit of a matron by now. Time passes and she lives in it, but her field of study is -- in essence -- eternity, that which we cannot fathom.

Jones believes in science in a big way, but across the hall from her at USGS, a woman named Linda Curtis maintains a body of "unscientific" knowledge, consisting of all the intuitive earthquake predictions she can get hold of. Some of these predictors are plainly nuts; some come disconcertingly near the "truth," whatever that is. Ulin tells us of some "sensitives," those whose heads begin to hurt before a quake -- of "Cloud Man," who predicts quakes by the clouds and does pretty well doing it. The author reminds us of common-sense knowledge -- hot weather is earthquake weather, animals behave strangely, birds stop singing three hours before a quake. And, touchingly, Ulin finds an entry predicting Sept. 11 in terms of a quake, the predictor in anguish because he can't prevent lives from being lost.

Then there are the hard-core scientists, who discover, for instance, that our perception of quakes coming in circles tidily emanating from an epicenter may be as cracked as any other theory, that predicting quakes along fault lines at particular times may or may not work. The scientists are left blushing, if scientists blush.

Earthquakes "have nothing to do with us," Ulin writes, late in this fascinating book. The implication is disconcerting: What if eternity, cosmic knowledge, "God," has everything to do with itself, and we're no more than dust mites? (As in, I know I have dust mites around the house, but I don't give their welfare one moment's thought.) We can still try to apprehend eternity, however. We can scan the clouds or invent the Richter scale. David Ulin lies full-length within the harsh chasm of the San Andreas fault. He rides the subway with his son and watches the earth around him shiver and yaw. He makes jokes. He gets scared. He loves his family. He enjoys long afternoons. Knowing the quakes are coming, he chooses to live. And if you in the East think this doesn't pertain to you, you have another think coming. There are moments when time stops for all of us and eternity shows its teeth. That's the alternate universe Ulin is talking about, and he does a creepy, brave, elegant job.