Few subjects in contemporary American life would seem riper for a big social novel than fracking. With tendrils connecting it to the worlds of business, energy, agriculture, politics and environmentalism, fracking offers everything a would-be Steinbeck, Zola or Frank Norris could want. A handful of writers have already ventured into this terrain. In 2014, James Browning gave us “The Fracking King,” a funny novel that combined Pennsylvania’s gas boom with competitive Scrabble. That year also saw the release of Michael J. Fitzgerald’s “The Fracking War,” a thriller focused on a group of activists opposing drilling in Central New York. But now, with the publication of Jennifer Haigh’s “Heat & Light,” we finally have a novel — and a novelist — whose ambitions match the scale of this subject.
The challenge with any topic of this magnitude is how to reduce its complexities and conflicts to a comprehensible human story. Haigh has opted for a panoramic approach, moving her narrative from a corporate shareholders’ meeting in Houston to a farmhouse where a couple argue over the sale of their drilling rights; from a small-town bar where out-of-state gas crews drink to a community meeting where an activist geologist answers questions asked by terrified landowners. It’s a tour de force of multiple point-of-view narration.
At its core, though, the novel is really about Bakerton, Pa., which was the setting for Haigh’s second novel, “Baker Towers” (2005). A former coal-mining “boomtown,” Bakerton had fallen on hard times, but a mile below its cellars and cemeteries lies a dangerous bounty: the Marcellus Shale, a vast reservoir of natural gas “older than coal.” In the words of one energy company employee, this shale is “Nature’s safe-deposit box, its treasures locked away like insurance for the future.” For some, though, it is a Pandora’s box.
The brilliance of Haigh’s novel is most evident in the effortless way it portrays the interconnectedness of the many constituencies involved in and affected by the extraction of that fuel. A good example is Rich Devlin, a corrections officer who inherited 40 acres near Bakerton. Devlin dreams of one day running his own dairy farm — a plan he hopes to finance by selling the drilling rights to his plot. His neighbors, a lesbian couple, Mack and Rena, run an organic farm that loses one of its best customers — a fancy Pittsburgh eatery — because of the proprietor’s concerns over fracking . Meanwhile, Devlin’s daughter, Olivia, suffers from a mysterious ailment that may or may not be caused by the work being done on his land. Devlin’s wife seeks counsel from her pastor, who is secretly having an affair with a member of the crew drilling under Devlin’s soil. The crew drinks at the bar owned by Devlin’s father. And so on.
With so many story lines and characters, there is always the risk of melodrama and cliche, but Haigh is never reductive in her plotting or characterization. Kip “the Whip” Oliphant, the flamboyant, Luciferian chief executive of Dark Elephant, the energy company buying up Bakerton’s mineral rights, turns out to have a surprising backstory. The affair between the pastor and the gas-rig worker doesn’t go the way you think it will. And Olivia’s illness is revealed to have, potentially, an even more sinister cause than toxins released by fracking.
Just as the deeply buried shale is broken up with immense water pressure, so too the powerful force of this valuable natural resource reveals human frailty at every depth of this story — from the boardroom to the bedroom. Appropriately, addiction is a recurring motif in the novel, the endless national need for energy paired with the self-destructive habits and cravings of Bakerton’s heroin and meth addicts.
“Heat & Light” is at pains to remind us how strongly entwined the state of Pennsylvania is with the history of energy production in this country. “In the time before recorded time, Pennsylvania was booby-trapped,” Haigh writes. The first oil wells were dug there, and coal has long been excavated from its hills. The Keystone State was also the scene of the country’s biggest nuclear scare. There is a brief DeLillo-esque chapter about Three Mile Island that chillingly evokes how quickly the unintended consequences of our need for abundant energy can get out of control. In keeping with the rest of her book, one of the characters from that chapter goes on to play a crucial role in Bakerton’s fraught engagement with fracking.
“The interconnectedness of everyone and everything is making him claustrophobic,” thinks one of the out-of-state gas workers as he drives through town. Haigh’s achievement in this expansive, gripping novel is to delineate the ways in which we are all connected, for better and worse, by pipelines and electrical wires, coal dust and gas fumes. Bakerton is us, and we are Bakerton.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and the head librarian at the Center for Fiction.
Ron Charles will be back next week.
On Saturday, May 14 at 3:30 p.m., Jennifer Haigh will be at Politics and Prose,
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington
By Jennifer Haigh
Ecco. 430 pp. $26.99