Lamar Herrin’s new novel, “Fractures,” revolves around a technique for extracting natural gas from rock, which sounds about as interesting as extracting natural gas from rock, but it’s surprisingly moving. Here’s an environmental novel that does just what you want it to do: Frame an important contemporary debate in profoundly human terms.
Hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — involves drilling deep into the earth and then injecting liquid and sand under tremendous pressure to create small fissures that allow gas and oil to flow up the well. Something like that pressure is now being brought to bear on our politicians: Energy companies claim that fracking is an economical way to answer our thirst for cheap fuel; environmentalists argue that it’ll poison us for generations.
A novel is no place to adjudicate that scientific debate, but Herrin gives us family members forced to make the choice for themselves, and their struggle to reconcile economic demands with personal ideals transcends the shrill tone of so many environmental arguments. The story opens in central New York in a rural town where most of the farmers have already leased their land to a gas company. Frank Joyner, a 60-year-old architect, is a prominent hold-out and public critic of the derricks that have arisen all over the county. Although his neighbors may be irked, his 11-year-old grandson, filled with the righteousness of youth, considers him a hero for resisting the lucrative deal.
As is so often the case, it’s money that complicates this family situation. Frank inherited his 100-acre farm under a will that requires him to share the profits of the land with his siblings and children — and suddenly those profits could be very large, indeed. Frank’s lawyer warns him, “If you willfully neglect the value of the land by not signing a lease, you are willfully reducing its benefits,” giving a distant relative grounds to sue.
Herrin quickly pushes us through a lot of industrial information and introduces a number of family members, but that allows us to fully enjoy the story’s central event: a large Thanksgiving gathering during which relatives discuss the pros and cons of drilling on Frank’s farm. The scene is a fantastic orchestration of competing interests with all the subtly disguised hurts, jealousies and affections heaped on the table like so many dishes of turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potato. Herrin is unusually good at adopting various points of view and allowing us to feel these loved ones as they try to influence Frank, while noting, politely, that the decision is his alone, of course.
“It’s going to happen whether we like it or not,” his sister tells him, “so we might as well share in the benefits. . . . Wisconsin has its cheese, Maine its lobsters, and we have our gas. We’re all pitching in.” His ex-wife, meanwhile, claims she doesn’t want the money. “All she wanted was for her husband — ex-husband! — not to embarrass them all.” And his younger son, Mickey, tells Frank to resist the gas money and “commit the symbolic act.”
How we should act is the real heart of this brooding novel, which moves beyond its timely environmental debate to consider more existential questions with great discernment. That’s particularly true of Mickey, a popular high school teacher who skates along with poses and ironical quips, burdened by too much feeling, too much intelligence and not enough discipline.
“Fractures” doesn’t overwork the metaphor implicit in its title, but clearly these characters are drilling deep into their lives, trying to find some bedrock they can depend on. Frank’s grandfather and great-grandfather committed suicide, and he made a halfhearted attempt in his 20s that still haunts him. Indeed, the novel opens with the most weirdly gorgeous act of self-harm I’ve ever read. A lifetime of restoring old buildings and making worn-out spaces useful again has given Frank a sense of the value of surviving. But can his children engineer that kind of purpose?
If “Fractures” has a flaw, it’s a tendency toward grandiosity that sometimes spoils the emotional authenticity of Herrin’s narration. The touches of antique diction — “He had plighted his troth” — often carry a note of irony that makes them work. But other sections are pumped full of meaning under high pressure. In the face of a devastating tragedy, for instance, one of the Joyners thinks, “All advances in civilization . . . had messy beginnings, some of them barbaric. Lewis and Clark themselves had left a trail of blood and butchered carcasses behind them. Of course, they’d had manifest destiny on their side, while the gas drillers had energy independence and a network of pipelines in handsomely cleared corridors across the land. At every turn a wise man took a long view.” That sounds a lot more like an Author trying to erect a Big Point than a real person mourning the death of a loved one.
But “Fractures” is uncommonly thoughtful about many issues, starting, of course, with the externalities of our energy needs and the costs of American ambition. At 73, Herrin also brings tender wisdom to his observations about the responsibilities of parenting, the duties of real manhood and the possibilities of romance. The novel offers a rare blend of candor and eroticism that doesn’t make you wince with embarrassment for the author. And Herrin is astute about the nature of love for older people, too. Frank’s relationship with a widow in town is one of the story’s many lovely moments. “She felt for him deeply,” Herrin writes, “as she knew he felt for her, but there was a limit to what they could do for each other. She might have been stationed on one side of a gorge, he on the other. They could make reassuring signals to each other. On good days they could even read the expressions on each other’s face. Some days shouting didn’t make it across, but on others, days of a blessed calm, a whisper did.”
Plenty of readers will enjoy Herrin’s book for its lustrous writing and poignant insight into the challenge of building a life worth living. But if you also want a novel that addresses a pressing political and environmental issue, “Fractures” is worth exploring.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. On Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Lamar Herrin. Thomas Dunne/
311 pp. $25.99