Following the success of her first novel, "Mrs. Kimble," winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Jennifer Haigh has beaten the sophomore slump phenomenon with another page-turner, "Baker...
Following the success of her first novel, “Mrs. Kimble,” winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Jennifer Haigh has beaten the sophomore slump phenomenon with another page-turner, “Baker Towers” (Morrow, 352 pp., $24.95).
The action, such as it is, takes place in post-WWII Bakerton, a Pennsylvania mining town. Haigh describes the town’s most famous landmark, known as the Towers: “… two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing. The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things.” Haigh lets us know this on page 2, setting the backdrop for the family drama of the Novaks.
The story begins with the death of Stanley Novak, husband of Rose and father of Georgie, Dorothy, Joyce, Lucy and Sandy. This is an Italian-Polish marriage, one that’s tolerated but is a break with the town’s tradition. The personality, temperament and needs of all five Novaks are made clear to us by their choices — although they are not always clear to the Novaks. Their interaction, with each other and their community, is the stuff of the novel. Many times throughout the book it seems that Haigh is using a camera rather than a pen, so perfectly does she create a scene for the reader.
Georgie struggles to get away from Bakerton after his military service by going to Philadelphia and marrying the boss’s daughter, a decision he lives to regret. Dorothy gets a job in Washington, D.C., but never really fits into the scene. A breakdown brings her home for good. Joyce joins the military, is appalled by the way she is treated, and hastens home to care for her ailing mother. Lucy, overweight and unwelcome with the “in” crowd, longs to be Fire Queen, the pinnacle of acceptance in Bakerton. Sandy, handsome and unreliable, leaves for big-city life, finds it, and comes home periodically to hide out.
Haigh has captured these people’s lives as they play out, more acted upon than acting. None of the Novaks is self-reflective; they accept the status quo. A foreshadowing of the changes that will take place is symbolized by a horrific mine explosion at the end of the book. This life that Haigh has so carefully described will soon disappear forever, for good or ill, but she has illuminated its present realities with a sure hand.
Valerie Ryan owns a bookstore in Cannon Beach, Ore.