Jennifer Haigh’s vivid new novel, “Heat and Light,” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a small Pennsylvania coal town in the midst of the fracking boom.
‘Heat and Light’
by Jennifer Haigh
Ecco, 430 pp., $26.99
A small town’s fortunes can wander like the line in a jagged bar graph — zooming up, plunging down. Such is the case with Bakerton, Pa., the former coal-mining company town that’s the setting for Jennifer Haigh’s vivid, haunting new novel, “Heat and Light.” (Two of her four previous novels, “Baker Towers” and “News from Heaven” were also set there.) After the mines closed in Bakerton decades ago, the town settled into a quiet, pallid decline — until gas-company men in suits appear, like flies to a corpse. Bakerton, they tell its inhabitants, is sitting on a rich deposit of natural gas; sign here, let us drill your land, and watch the cash roll in.
You could describe “Heat and Light” as a fracking novel, but that’s only a piece of it. Haigh immerses us in the community, letting its stories overlap like conversations at a town meeting. Prison guard Rich Devlin and his fragile wife, Shelby, sign, in the hope of reviving Rich’s family farm, but the American dream continues to elude them — is their perpetually ailing little daughter suffering from the effects of contaminated water? Mack and Rena, a lesbian couple who run a neighboring organic farm, refuse to sign, getting caught up in an anti-fracking movement led by a charismatic environmental activist.
Though much of the novel takes place in the near-present (the bulk of it is set in the summer of 2012), Haigh allows her narrative to float in time, drifting backward when needed. A young widow — Shelby’s pastor — wonders if her husband’s early death from cancer had anything to do with his childhood downwind of Three Mile Island. Just like that, it’s 1979, where a little boy dreams of being John Travolta in “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and plays Mousetrap in an airless room with the windows shut tight against what his mother calls “air pollution.” (The Three Mile Island meltdown plays out on television behind him, the swarms of reporters making it look like “kind of a disaster Olympics.”) Meanwhile, at a Dairy Queen, a barely-out-of-high-school Mack and Rena begin a tentative, wary friendship.
This is the sort of novel where everyone’s lives are interwoven: Rich’s co-worker is married to somebody who works with Rena; Shelby’s mother, Roxanne (a woman in whom you can see “a ghostly remnant of the bombshell she must have been before hard living took her looks”), is spotted shoplifting by a derrickman, who later becomes involved with the pastor; and everyone except the visiting gas workers seems to know everyone else from high school. As you read, you start to sense what the air in this town smells like, and picture the faded decorations in Rich’s father’s bar and the bland, pinched-beige interior of Rich and Shelby’s home.
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Haigh delicately maintains the tone — and a page-turning level of engagement — while constantly shifting the narrative point of view. (At one point, she seamlessly slips into the voice of the sort of attorney who runs “Call today!” ads on television.) She doesn’t judge her characters or their actions, but simply shines light on them, creating from a small town and a place in time a rich tapestry of dreams, of greed, of hope. The land these people own — handed down from their parents, defining them — becomes a character; holding secrets, and possible fortune, if only one could hear its whisper.