By Jennifer Haigh
Morrow. 334 pp. $24.95
The towers of Jennifer Haigh's ambitious, elegiac second novel, Baker Towers, are Bakerton's "most famous landmark" -- two looming piles of mine waste . . . forty feet high and growing, graceful slopes of loose coal and sulfurous dirt." They are also evidence of the subterranean, dangerous mine work that is the life blood of this western Pennsylvania town. For Bakerton's residents, the towers offer a strange beauty that outsiders may not understand, and it's this -- the beauty within the harshness -- that the novel depicts. Haigh is interested in what's hidden from view, in questions of cultural and economic invisibility and, especially, in the unsung hopes and sacrifices of ordinary lives. Beginning in 1944 and spanning two-and-a-half decades, Baker Towers reveals the layers of Bakerton's Polish and Italian immigrant community life, and traces the loves and losses of the novel's central Polish-Italian Novak family.
The first of these losses is the death of 54-year-old Stanley Novak, who collapses after returning from the night-time "Hoot Owl" shift at the Baker mines. His death and its aftermath quickly delineate the divisions between the Italian and Polish communities and underscore the day-to-day economic hardships for mining families. The Novak house and his widow, Rose Novak, anchor the novel, and the shifting narrative perspective -- which also includes views from secondary characters -- moves among the five Novak children as they come of age and travel beyond Bakerton. George serves in the Navy and attends college on the GI bill; Dorothy takes a job in Washington, D.C., soon after her father's death; Joyce, the family pragmatist, joins the military; Sandy, the younger, pleasure-seeking son, moves through a string of cities; and Lucy, an infant when her father dies, grows up in a much-altered family constellation.
In exploring these lives, Haigh also explores -- and critiques -- the culture's sexual mores, the shaping influence of Catholicism and the fraught territory of female sexuality and independence. The equally fraught tensions between family responsibility and individual desire permanently mark these characters' lives, as do the sometimes brutal restrictions of class and gender. For Bakerton men, local roads lead to the mine; for the town's women, the dress factory. The Novak brothers find geographic and economic escape routes; the sisters in turn all leave Bakerton, but need, obligation and family ties pull them back.
The lasting power of this novel is in Haigh's gift for capturing the long view and for putting Bakerton itself -- its history and community -- on the literary map. The novel is spliced through with brief chapters chronicling Bakerton's development and collective life, and Haigh's skill for summary and keen sense of detail make for evocative visual moments and overviews. Take, for example, Dorothy's view of the men at the annual Italian festival: "Old men, strongly perfumed, in pink shirts and pastel slacks. Some bald, with oiled scalps; others with low hairlines, graying pompadours beginning just above the eyebrows." Or a description of the dress factory transformed by late-day light: "The sun had set along the river; the windows of the dress factory glowed orange pink. Drums in the distance, the high school marching band practicing for the parade." The novel recreates an already vanishing world, and Haigh's restrained, graceful prose allows important absences and silences to resonate. Bakerton is difficult and richly communal, its family and neighborhood bonds powerful and sustaining, if also compromising.
Baker Towers's narrative movement conveys an interest in memory and an expansive sense of time frequently revealed through the flash-forward -- an appealing strategy but one that often diminishes the power of the dramatic present, as does the tendency to leap forward in time and retrospectively summarize personal histories. These strategies can limit characterization and create distance from the Novaks, and readers may wish for more nuance and depth. Haigh's palpable evocation of 1940s and '50s Bakerton -- the community portrait -- is the novel's gift.
This gift is a significant one. The ultimate inheritors of Bakerton's legacies and its hopes -- Lucy Novak, her childhood friend Leonard, George's son Arthur -- are headed for neither the mines nor the dress factory, their economic and geographic options far greater than Rose's and Stanley's. "The town wore away like a bar of soap," Haigh writes, but she has brought this ephemeral world to light. Baker Towers is, finally, a rich portrait of place, its meaning not in the towers themselves but in the community that created them, and Haigh's readers will empathize with Lucy Novak's wish to remain.
Nancy Reisman is the author of the novel "The First Desire" and the story collection "House Fires."