Jennifer Haigh populates her latest novel, an exploration of the human cost of fracking, with more characters and subplots than Game of Thrones. Each cast member, principle and secondary, is distinctive and fully rounded. Cutting from one point of view to another, with each chapter, she manages to generate narrative drive — you want to know what happens next. She’s done impeccable research, writing with authority about natural gas extraction and the operation of a nuclear power plant. Indeed, Haigh does so much so well, it is a puzzle that Heat & Light has so little impact.
The novel opens with the legendary tale of Colonel Drake, a speculator who struck oil near the backwater burg of Bakerton, in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, before the Civil War. “Before he shot the president, John Wilkes Booth came to Petrolia and drilled a duster.” But even the productive wells are long spent, the oil company jobs a distant memory. It is little better with coal. The mines have been shuttered, hundreds laid off, in favor of strip mining and its skeleton crews.
Sleepy and slumping, Bakerton is defenseless before the energy company scouts suddenly arrive, offering to buy mineral rights to the gigantic natural gas reserves lying under the mountains in the Marcellus Shale. Most sell, like Rich Devlin, a prison guard with ambitions to farm the family property. A few refuse, among them the lesbian farmer Mack, who operates a successful organic dairy, and her longtime companion Rena.
Conflict, personal and public, fissure through the community as the gas boom changes everything. Haigh follows these tiny cracks, seeking to tell a story of great scope entirely through the eyes of individual characters. Her cinematic eye for detail misses nothing. Here Rich, on his rounds at the prison, comes to the cell of the sole transgender inmate.
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“By the standards of the world, she is not an attractive woman. Not a woman at all, in point of fact; and yet Devlin looks forward to seeing her each morning, a realization that unsettled him at first. Her bright face is a relief from the drab functionality of the prison, its unrelenting maleness. Though not technically a woman, she is womanlike; and he would rather look at women than men.”
Jumping from subplot to subplot Haigh masterfully weaves the dome of her larger story together, until she takes a leap backward in time to 1979 and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg. The hook is Pastor Wes, a timid, bookish boy at the time of the accident, who comes down with terminal thyroid cancer 20 years later in Bakerton. It’s a finely rendered sequence, with all the technical and social detail of the previous chapters. But the gambit fumbles away the stories’ momentum, and the book never quite recovers.
Therein lies the novel’s lack of punch. Haigh fails to tighten her grip on any part of the story. Although a proficient writer, Haigh is not a stylist. She seldom squeezes the language. Having missed the chance to tighten focus midway through, the story wisps away as it approaches the conclusion, like dry ice turning to vapor.
I don’t want to say the ending is grim, except in the sense that economic and social life in Appalachia is almost always grim. Haigh offers too much reading pleasure for that. Heat & Light is worth reading for its portrait of small town life. Long after the big fracking story has faded, Bakerton’s residents will remain fixed in memory, as vivid as real people.
Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.