Heat & Light
by Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh’s sixth book, Heat & Light, is enormous, both in length and in ambition. It’s fitting, then, that it ends with the image of a battleship, the SS Roosevelt, that one of the main characters, Rich Devlin, sailed in the Persian Gulf during his time in the Navy. In a sense, our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels, the economic system upon which our modern world is built, and our unwilling but helpless complicity, have the scale and inevitability of a battleship. The very idea of turning it around is almost laughable.
The central conflict of Heat & Light is the natural gas drilling in western Pennsylvania that promises much and delivers little but noise and ruination before packing up and rolling out of town when the market turns. Haigh finds many ways to work in information about fracking and its effects from many perspectives: the land leasing scams; the wooing of investors; the sterility of the driller’s camp; the toxic chemical spill on the rig; the trucks on the roads; and the brutal clearing of the forest of Rich Devlin’s land. The day the drill rig shows up in his backyard during a family cookout is captured vividly:
An immense truck, larger than any he’s ever seen, is climbing the access road, or trying to. The thing moves at the speed of a cruise ship, enveloped in a cloud of diesel fumes. . . . In stunned silence they watch the hulking machine inch up the ridge. That it moves at all is a straight-up miracle. It’s as though an aircraft carrier has run aground in Rich’s back yard. (pp. 195-196)
Deeper into the story comes the scientific expert who tells the townspeople how fracking can poison local water supplies and references to people in the West lighting their water on fire. The character Rena’s pregnant nursing colleague falls ill and miscarries after treating the driller with the toxic spill all over him. That is from an actual incident in Pennsylvania where a nurse ended up with multiple organ failure from exposure to the fracking chemicals on a drill worker patient.
Fracking makes a great source of conflict and Haigh has certainly mastered the research. There are times, though, when the detailed descriptions of machine parts and processes run the risk of overshadowing the inner lives and emotions of the characters. In On Writing, Stephen King observes: “The best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event.” Sometime the ambition of Haigh’s book—the sprawling over time and geography, as well as the multiple points of view—prevents her from going deeper into her characters. It’s more in the style of being a mile wide and an inch deep.
There is no doubt that Jennifer Haigh is a master at drawing characters. Her descriptions are quick and concise, rendering unique histories, motivations, and biases. They think differently from each other. They have distinct worries, cares, and dreams. For a while, the characters and situations hold the reader’s interest and, since they switch so frequently, build suspense and yield a well-paced narrative.
In my unscientific tally of the point of view shifts, I count twenty-five different points of view that switch eighty-four times. Haigh treats them all with an almost journalistic dispassion. Equal time for everyone and no taking sides. The reader does not feel inclined to attach to any one character or root for one over another. I felt more like a voyeur, curious to have a tour of the widowed Pastor’s house or to discover what’s in the character Gia’s glovebox. In this approach, Haigh adheres to George Saunders observation from the book, Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore:
“I think what a fiction writer does is represent different viewpoints vividly. And without necessarily seeming to prefer one over the other. . . . See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.”
For all its objectivity, though, the story’s realism has an unfortunate distancing effect. It’s as though Haigh is saying, any of these people could be you, or you could be any of them. Here, try on a gas rig worker and this one-percenter. Now, this widowed pastor and this desperate, confused young mother. Or, how about a recovering addict walking the knife’s edge of sobriety?
By about halfway through, I had tried on so many shoes that I was inclined to keep going just to get through it. I gave up hoping that any of the story lines would build to a satisfying climax or denouement. How could it be possible, with all those character arcs? One of the most dramatic moments, then, is a heated argument between two geologists—an activist professor and his former student now making a name for herself as an expert for the gas industry—with their history as lovers way back when hanging over them. Ho hum.
Still, scenes like that one do tip Haigh’s hand and yield up themes:
“And there it lies, the fundamental difference between them. The way other people believe in Allah or Jesus, Lorne Trexler believes in his own power, his ability to affect outcomes. Amy has a sudden vision of him twenty years older, a hippie in his dotage, still fighting battles long ago lost, or long ago won.
“The outcomes have already been decided.
“The collision of large forces, or their collusion. The machine that can’t be stopped.”
And it turns out that Haigh does pick favorites. The environmentalist character is a loser former addict who drives a Smart car that people laugh at. He went to Hopkins on scholarships and high hopes from his small town and flunked out after getting hooked on smack. Now he works as a drug counselor in Baltimore and lives alone. He’s skinny and oversensitive and eats tofu hot dogs, though never more than one at a time. Who does that? He hasn’t the fierceness, the passion, or the fortitude of many environmental activists that I know.
As the story wears on, many of the characters end up coming off as caricatures, with arcs that are undercooked. They are just so many dinner plates that have to be kept spinning, returned to again and again. The lesbian couple comes off as clichéd, with one almost genderless partner raised as a boy by her gruff dairy-farmer father, and the other abused and afraid of men.
By contrast, Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose, is a story with a dozen points of view that delves deeply into each character. It has the tight core of a single event that holds everyone firmly in its orbit.
Using many perspectives and examples, Heat & Light chooses to dramatize what’s wrong with our way of doing things while giving no hints at possible alternatives. In the end, Rich’s farm is ruined, the energy company runs into financial problems, Shelby goes on poisoning her daughter (if that’s what she’s really doing), Rena’s son Calvin steps out of jail into an uncertain future, Darrell goes to another AA meeting. Everyone is left hanging. The story is told, the tale ends, and the storyteller goes away. There is no resolution.
This is meant more as an observation than a criticism. Though I wasn’t satisfied by that approach, others may be. I don’t need a happy ending, but I’d like to have been changed by the story, to learn something, or have new insight. I’m not sure I can say that in this case.
Heat & Light is full of meticulously researched details in visits back to the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The passages about the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster are some of the best writing in the book. Presented as the backstory of a few of the characters and dramatizes another aspect of Pennsylvania’s energy production woes, it could easily stand on its own as a novella. (One wonders if taking it out would even affect the rest of the story.) The section begins:
“It is a work of genius, alive as a human body, the dream of a scientist with the intellect of God. But the scientist himself did not design it. The engineers who designed it have never run it. The operators can’t, themselves, maintain it. The maintenance crew has no idea what they’re maintaining. They perform procedures outlines in the Handbook, written by someone. They follow the schedule and complete the checklist and hang the yellow tag.” (p. 135)
Reading this, you immediately wonder why every nuclear power plant in the world hasn’t melted down by now. The writing nails the impossible complexity of the place and transmits an ominous feeling about the fallibility of the humans who oversee and run it. Throughout this chapter, Haigh’s near-journalistic dispassion sparkles. It is just the right tone to present odd, telling details as the disaster unfolds. And so we learn the number of polishers needed to scrub the feedwater and even the weight of the fabled Handbook (nine and a half pounds) that guides the maintenance crew of sixteen men. Later in the chapter, when things have spiraled out of the control of maintenance crew, Handbook, or automated safety measures of the plant itself, the spin commences:
“The uranium core was never uncovered. Dauphin County will not be evacuated.
“Children are to stay indoors.
“The core was uncovered for several minutes. For several hours. For an undetermined period. People of all ages should stay indoors until midnight. A quarter of the fuel rods have melted, but this is no cause for alarm.
“Radiation has been confined to the reactor building. To Unit Two only. Radiation has been confined to the island. Forty-thousand gallons of radioactive water have been released to the river, but this poses no danger to public health.”
The escalating details go on for a bit longer, ending with, “Residents are asked to remain calm.” Isn’t that what we are still being asked to do? Medicated with Netflix binges and cheap goods from Amazon, not to mention all manner of mind-altering substances.
The last scene brings the reader into the trap that is Rich Devlin’s life—and, by extension, ours. As a boy, he imagined the world in Indian times, before strip mines and steel mills. That cusp, that threshold between boyhood and manhood, was a fertile time of possibility. Unfortunately for Rich and, we infer, the rest of us, it was crushed by the strictures and rules of a culture that only values land for the resources it yields and people for the man-hours of work that can be extracted.
“At nine years old, for the first and last time in his life, he read voraciously: adventure stories, encyclopedias, anything with an Indian in it. Seneca, Cherokee, Chickasaw. How he loved the sound of those names, the cascading syllables. Reading, he imagined waking up in a teepee or a pueblo to a different life entirely, in which boys weren’t forced to take spelling tests or deliver newspapers or learn catechism, the daily gauntlet of responsibility that had already begun for him and wouldn’t end until he was too old to hunt or track or fish, too old to do anything but watch TV commercials and fall asleep in his chair.”
It’s hard to know whether Haigh is emphasizing the hopelessness of our culture’s inexorable march towards its own self destruction, or allowing a hopeful glimpse into another way of being that is yet available to us. We all have within us that nine-year-old boy’s imagination. That, plus the rebellious teen spirit of Rena’s son and the doggedness of her partner Mack, just might help us to turn the battleship.
Find Julie Gabrielli at juliegabrielli.com
I’ll look for this. Her books are set in the area where my mother-in-law grew up; there is always something that feels a little familiar…