People often forget that the disaster movie wave of the 1970’s had its roots in the literary world. Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were all novels before they were films (in fact, The Towering Inferno was a synthesis of two different novels, The Glass Inferno and The Tower).
The narrative sprawl and ensemble-driven nature of the disaster genre is a perfect fit for the novel format – where the only expenses to be dealt with are paper, ink and imagination – and the bookshelves were regularly crammed with disaster-themed novels throughout the 1970’s. A lot of them were throwaways and cash-ins but some offered intriguing variations on the format.
Savage Snow is a particularly interesting variant on the disaster-novel. The setup seems to be standardized genre material: a freak blizzard hits Boston, burying the city in punishing waves of snow as a series of characters in their own little subplots cope with their own unique storm-related dilemmas. However, the way author Will Holt deals with his material is much different than the above synopsis would lead you to believe.
For one thing, the plot is not constructed around scenes of destruction and cliff-hanger moments arising for the chaos they cause. In Savage Snow, that kind of visceral thrill is limited to an effective scene where a tidal wave devastates a coastal community and a plot thread dealing with the effects of snow pileup on a concert hall that has a flimsy “mod” design scheme. However, both scenes are handled in an artful, impressionistic manner that is twice as haunting as a more carnage-oriented treatment would have been.
Instead, Savage Snow builds itself upon several different subplots that casually intersect with each other a la a Robert Altman film. There’s a spoiled rich wife on the run from her mausoleum-like existence, the two brothers whose hit band is trying to stage a concert at the concert hall, an ethereal-minded pregnant woman trying to make her way to the hospital and the streetwise hustler who helps her, a t.v. reporter who sets out on skis to make his name by covering the storm, the banker who ends up in an erotic rendezvous with a recently-immigrated French divorcee and the banker’s wife, whose attitudes and sanity are tested by some unwanted visitors to her home. There’s also a run-down hotel run by a sad-sack couple that becomes a refuge for storm victims – and a meeting ground for different characters at different moments.
Holt deftly crosscuts back and forth between these subplots, pushing them forward in skillfully described but punchy installments that help him maintain a steady pace. He also uses the different phases of the snowstorm to orchestrate his different plot threads in a way that keeps the overall narrative in focus. He’s got a knack for vivid details and keeping the settings fresh by describing them via the differing viewpoints of his characters. Holt had a music-biz background so his depictions of the minutia and psychological games at play in the life of a touring act are particularly convincing, with the brother act running the band (Savannah Sound) offering the richest and most convincing characterizations of the book.
Holt’s approach to his material also sets Savage Snow apart from the disaster-novel pack because he’s more interested in the psychological effects that the storm has on its characters than the storm itself. It tests the mettle of the characters, bringing out both their good and bad aspects at different times. There are few villainous types to be found here – instead, there are people with varying degrees of character flaws.
The storm also brings out hidden desires, resulting in a few sex scenes intense enough to raise the reader’s eyebrows (a backstage orgy staged by the band is the most notable, offering a few unexpected shocks amidst the steamy scenarios). However, even that aspect of the novel doesn’t descend to mere smuttiness – instead, it’s another way in which characterizations are explored, offering an uncompromising insight into where the characters’ boundaries lie – and how easily those boundaries can be blurred under the right circumstances.
In short, Savage Snow is a worthy addition to the disaster genre thanks to its unique approach to its narrative and its unexpected psychological depth. It’s the rare example of the genre where the little storms going on inside each character are as interesting as the chaos that surrounds them.