It’s mid-morning on a Monday when the men come calling at the Devlins’s prefab house, wanting to drill their property for natural gas. Their 60 acres of forest and pasture belonged to Rich Devlin’s grandfather, and Rich means to farm the land if he can ever find the start-up funds.
At 40, he is a correctional officer at the nearby state prison, a job he hates and impotently plots to leave. In Bakerton, the busted Pennsylvania boom town where he grew up and settled down, other ways to make a decent living are in painfully short supply.
“Beautiful property you’ve got here,” one of the energy company sharks tells him, and the flattery works precisely as intended. Rich listens to their pitch, hears the answer to his dreams, and signs their contract. So does his wife, Shelby, who will be the first to notice when the water from their well starts smelling strange, just after drilling begins.
Greed, desperation, arrogance, and naivete touch off a cascade of actions and consequences in “Heat and Light,” Jennifer Haigh’s slow-burning fifth novel, which sees hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, arrive in Bakerton. In this almost ghost town — the scene of Haigh’s novel “Baker Towers” (2005) and the locus of her collection “News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories” (2013) — the people who stayed through the bad times, whether they wanted to or not, are primed for an economic miracle.
The men are taciturn and the women are expected to know their place in this one-cop town, where people’s lives are being disrupted by the latest grab for the spoils beneath their soil. Haigh, a Bostonian from Pennsylvania coal country, traces a whole ecosystem surrounding the frenzy, from a reckless Houston CEO to the itinerant drill workers and carpetbagging environmental activists. Her heart, though, is with the people of Bakerton — not, principally, characters we’ve met before, but their relatives and neighbors.
It’s through them that she reaches back to the 1970s, linking that era — its nascent concerns for the health of the Earth, its horrific environmental disasters — to this one, with its income inequality and persnickety locavores. Bakerton’s organic dairy farmers, Rena and Mack, refuse to sign over their mineral rights, but their affluent urban patrons turn against them anyway. Who wants to drink cream sourced to a gas-drilling county?
“Heat and Light” is an ensemble novel, with multiple story lines. Attention-starved Shelby is the star of one of these, which intersects with another starring pastor Jess Peacock, a lonely young widow whose husband, Wes, was a boy living near Three Mile Island when the partial nuclear meltdown happened there in 1979. His parents refused to leave. Was the cancer that killed him set in motion then, like a laggardly version of Mouse Trap, the Rube Goldberg-esque board game he so loved to play?
And is the tainted water in Shelby and Rich’s well somehow to blame for the persistent sickliness of their daughter, Olivia? Lorne Trexler, an anti-fracking geologist from out of town who dazzles Rena, spurring her to activism and a blushing crush, hopes the little girl will be useful to the cause, no matter what’s actually making her ill. (Mack, who thinks Lorne is a jackass, is correct.)
“We deal in perceptions,” Lorne tells Rena. “Our role is to raise questions, Cassandra sounding the alarm. That’s all we can do. And if we do it right — loudly, with great conviction — it just might be enough.”
But fuel is not the only source of environmental toxins in Bakerton. Sometimes poison, like hell, is other people. Sometimes the air you grew up breathing just isn’t safe anymore, no matter how you yearn for it. That’s true for Darren, Rich’s shame-filled younger brother, a heroin addict long in recovery, who comes back from Baltimore for an extended vacation. Still smitten with Gia Bernardi, the beauty who was his friend but nothing more when they were teens, it takes him a while to realize that he’s surrounded by meth heads.
“Heat and Light” will leave you wanting more, wishing Haigh had gone deeper into some of these stories. Still, even her short, sharp jabs can be splendidly effective cultural criticism, like the jocular segment of cable business news that describes “investors in a panic” over the tanking of the natural-gas market. “Boys and girls,” says a grinning talking head, “energy is and forever will be a numbers game.”
Except that, for the people on the ground, their lives built atop a hidden bounty that strangers schemed to take, it isn’t a game at all. It never has been.
HEAT AND LIGHT
By Jennifer Haigh
Ecco, 430 pp., $26.99
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.