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A Dying Coal Town Falls Into 'Fracking Frenzy' In 'Heat And Light'

"More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath." That's a line Jennifer Haigh places at the beginning and the end of her latest novel, Heat and Light.

Haigh knows a lot about "what lies beneath" in Pennsylvania. She was born in the coal country of Western Pennsylvania and her 2005 best-selling novel, Baker Towers, traced the rise and fall of the fictional coal town, Bakerton, in the years following World War II. Haigh returned to Bakerton a few years ago in her short story collection, News From Heaven; now, in Heat and Light she's paying a more extended visit.

For Haigh, Bakerton is becoming something akin to Faulkner's apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It's a place she's brought to life so scrupulously that she can delve deep, both into the minds and family histories of her mostly working-class characters, as well as into the land itself and the stories it contains.

Heat and Light is her most ambitious — and compelling — novel yet. What Tom Wolfe did for the New York City of the so-called, "go-go '80s" in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Haigh does here for Bakerton — and the obscure real-life locales it's based on — in this, our own era of "fracking frenzy."

Heat and Light is an exquisitely designed, semi-satirical social novel featuring a cast of at least 15 main characters. The central story revolves around fracking — the method by which natural gas trapped underground in shale rock is released through drilling and the injection of a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand.

The novel opens in 2010, when a salesman comes to town representing a Texas company called Dark Elephant Energy. In simple two-minute pitches, the salesman offers farmers around Bakerton a sweet deal, whereby Dark Elephant leases their land, drills into what he calls "Nature's safe-deposit box" and releases the treasure of natural gas. He claims the drill will run so far beneath the land that farming can go on as usual. In return, the farmers get a leasing bonus up front and a percentage of future profits.

Who would say no to such easy money, right? But the regrets skyrocket a couple of years later, after the tap water gets funky and residents begin suffering from rashes and boils, memory loss and miscarriages.

After the natural gas boom goes bust and Dark Elephant drill workers (some of whom we've gotten to know) are laid off and stiffed on their last paycheck; after the old hardwood forests are cut down and muddy clearings "the size of ... shopping mall[s] are carved out" — that's when most folks in Bakerton realize they've been royally fracked.

The challenge with such a political, and heavily populated novel like Heat and Light is to make us readers care; to topple us from our Olympian condescension and get us to identify with these characters and the mistakes they make out of greed and need.

Jennifer Haigh's previous books include <em>Baker Towers</em> and <em>News From Heaven. </em>
Rob Arnold / Ecco
Jennifer Haigh's previous books include Baker Towers and News From Heaven.

As spectacular as Haigh's panoramic social focus is in this novel — whisking us from Dark Elephant's shareholders' meeting in Houston into Bakerton's taverns, the Wal-Mart, the local meth-head hangouts and storefront churches — she's also superb at getting us into the nitty gritty of her character's worldview, as well as their speech.

Most Bakerton natives begin their sentences with the resigned preface, "Anyways." Chief among them is Rich Devlin, who has inherited his family's property, but works as a prison guard because he can't afford to farm. Rich's father always told him that "there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after."

Rich can't wait to scrub the prison smells off him every night. With the money from Dark Elephant, Rich thought he could finally quit the prison job and begin farming. But, now his water and land are polluted. He can't even afford to sue. "Anyways," there are so many contractors and subcontractors involved, he wouldn't know where to begin.

In another one of her signature poetic pronouncements on her home territory, Haigh says: "Rural Pennsylvania doesn't fascinate the world, not generally. But cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need."

In Heat and Light, Haigh succeeds in making rural Pennsylvania — its land and people — plenty fascinating. Through the intimacy of her sweeping portrayal of Bakerton and the world beyond, she also compels readers to think about what we value and what possessions and dreams we sell off way too cheap.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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