In “Standpipe,” David Hardin, volunteering with the Red Cross, is assigned to deliver bottled water to the residents of Flint, Mich., during the early days of the city’s public water crisis. But forget about a plot. There is none, in this book or in Flint, where life is episodic, untethered, fraught with Faustian bargains, structural injustices and tangled lives that are “hobbled by the past.” These fragmented and parallel narratives — capturing Hardin’s work and his personal history — don’t hinder the book however. They become the architecture for a case study of Flint, expressed in a more personal and poetic way than a straightforward investigation could.

The short diarylike entries are like sun shining through trees, revealing light and shadow, hope and despair. They are artful yet concise, candid yet snappy as gum, and vary between personal grief and the grief Hardin witnesses, sometimes within the same paragraph, drawing the thinnest line from his middle-class upbringing to the “grinding, generational poverty” of the residents he serves. The fugitive quality of the book’s structure and plot also parallels the arc of his strained on-again, off-again relationship with his mother, who eventually descends into dementia.

“I chase a mirage of validation,” Hardin writes as he considers both his role as a human standpipe and his mother’s thorny love. While his story runs as an undercurrent, touching riverbanks of grief as we go, the main conundrum is Flint, where Hardin understands he delivers water, not salvation. “I am toiling on the right side of a river of betrayal and indifference,” he writes. And while the chasm is wide, Hardin negotiates his privilege and blind spots with awareness and care. He admits that Flint used to be just “another town through which I’ve passed free of claim.” He sees that apathy and hubris activated Flint’s public health crisis in 2014 and fuel it to this day. For example, Hardin begins to notice the persistent chirp of dying smoke detectors in residents’ homes, which are as “common as brimming ashtrays, threadbare carpet, pungent cooking odors, pit bulls, crime bars, blaring televisions, and children rendered mute by our sudden, inexplicable presence in their living room.” The smoke detectors, he discovers, had been maintained by AmeriCorps volunteers, who now install faucet filters instead. The chirping? It’s white noise Hardin learns to ignore, as ignored as the people of Flint have been.

The hills and vales of the crisis emerge mainly through observations of people doing their best under duress, like “knots of men saddled with surplus time and lack of purpose,” or homes sagging with “water-frescoed plaster” or “a peeling nineteenth-century clapboard rooming house . . . on a rubbish strewn lot tucked into the crooked elbow of an impenetrable thicket of bramble,” and other such scenes that go unreported in the news.

Delivering water helps “dispel the nagging guilt of a slumming dilettante, but only a little” Hardin writes, while wondering whether it’s possible to make a difference in a place “where the devastation extends back decades.” The author’s ongoing internal dialogue and conflicted fealties scaffold the conundrums and questions the book asks: Can bottled water, lead-free pipes or million-dollar settlements fix underlying systemic social and racial injustices or eliminate the repercussions to the families Hardin meets? It’s a conflict as stark as the gleeful “rooty-toot-toot” of Hardin’s vehicle as he approaches residences and the gloomy necessity of his task. What is the real disaster, the friendly toot asks, and is limited and sporadic aid enough to resolve a “battered community” filled with “ghosts of a long-dead middle class haunting every byway”?

Meanwhile, Flint is still a disaster but not sexy or explosive enough to make headlines anymore. It has become, like so many such sacrifice zones, an island of despair and invisibility, relegated to the economic, political and cultural periphery by agencies and leaders who are supposed to support them, and by the media when they get bored. Hardin makes clear that the machinations of the solution — delivering water to thirsty people — can be part of the problem. “The less time we spend at each stop, the more water we can distribute during our shift.” Timekeeping, data and accountability are what make the world go around. But the darker side of statistics and efficiency is also what leaves empathy and human prosperity to remain submerged.

Kerri Arsenault is the book editor for Orion magazine, contributing editor at Literary Hub and author of “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains.”


Delivering Water in Flint

By David Hardin

Belt Publishing. 176 pp. $16.95