Heat and Light
I first heard about Jennifer Haigh’s new novel Heat and Light from Kathy at Bermuda Onion and then read it in a couple of hours one hot and sunny July afternoon, sitting in the glider on our deck. It’s a good story, full of people who are likable but not perfect and with a plot that moves along from secrets and lies to exposure and truth.
My mind was already made up about fracking, partly from reading about it, partly from smelling it at the corner of two highways where we turn to go the second half hour of our drive towards the airport, and partly from hearing Walker talk about his research for a class he took at Oberlin on fracking. Since Heat and Light is a good novel, it doesn’t take a stand, but the story doesn’t move in a direction that exposes anything good about fracking in Pennsylvania, where it’s set.
There is one part, the beginning of Chapter 4, where the novelist’s attitude comes through unmistakably:
“The forest is a century old, mixed hardwoods, trunks thick as rain barrels—the childhood gymnasium of four generations, prime real estate for tree houses and tire swings….The forest is cut with a Chisholm 600, the industry standard….It severs each trunk at ground level….The earthmovers come next….The drill pad is leveled and laid with gravel. Then the well is dug. A well starts with a cellar, a hole six feet deep. From the cellar a deeper hole is dug. If witnessed more than one hundred times, this operation may seem natural, commonplace. If witnessed fewer than one hundred times, it will look and sound obscene.”
The characters are recognizable. There’s a young mother, Shelby, who worries a lot about her children and enjoys the children’s service a new female minister has started at her church:
“It’s a thing no male minister would ever think of, that a person might actually pay attention to the service if her children were safely occupied elsewhere. If she were, for one blessed hour a week, left in peace.”
Shelby’s husband Rich thinks about his father saying that “there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after” because Rich has “always done the second kind—roofing, soldiering, hauling oxygen tanks for Miners’ Medical.” And in the present day of the novel, Rich is working as a prison guard, which he includes in the kind of work where you shower after.
There’s a long-married man, called Herc, who is contemplating an affair:
“She was dressed in a gray pants suit, the sort of outfit Hillary Clinton had worn in her presidential campaign. His wife, who hated Hillary Clinton, had called the pants suit hideous, but Herc secretly liked them. His upbringing, probably: he liked to see women modestly dressed. Colleen still wore the short skirts she’d favored in high school. Somewhere along the way, she’d gotten the idea he liked them. Maybe he’d complimented her once, to make her happy; maybe he’d even meant it at the time.
Marriage in middle age: living in a house made of shit you’ve said over the years.”
Some of the background we get on the characters turns out to be crucially important in understanding their actions later in the novel, like where the female minister’s husband who died young of cancer grew up, and that Shelby had a little sister who died when they were children. Despite the death and the descriptions of the ruined environment, however, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Truth exposed, a reader hopes, will speak for itself.
Although we know it doesn’t, always.