If you’re familiar with Jennifer Haigh, you’re probably familiar with the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s the setting of two of her previous books, Baker Towers and News from Heaven; the books span generations as they follow the town’s residents through the coal mining boom and bust.
In Heat & Light, another form of energy production dangles promises of wealth to the residents of Bakerton. Unlike before, when men spent the strongest years of their lives breathing coal dust only to die of cancer and black lung down the road, all this generation has to do is sign a lease to allow fracking on their land, then sit back and wait for their checks to arrive.
Of course, knowing what we now do about hydraulic fracking — the earthquakes, the razed land, the tap water you can set on fire — it’s not that simple. Most of the residents don’t know this. When they’re approached by Dark Energy and told stories of the Marcellus Shale and the ocean of wealth they’re sitting on, most of them can’t wait to sign up. The town has been dying ever since the coal mines closed, and the remaining residents are struggling to survive.
It isn’t until later — when children start getting sick and water starts smelling funny, when you have to shout in your own home to be heard above the noise of the drilling — that the residents begin understanding all the ways they’ve been taken advantage of. Bakerton has boomed to life again, but none of the residents have jobs; those are all subcontracted out to roughnecks brought in from around the country.
Haigh uses a similar format as the other Bakerton books: the novel is told from multiple perspectives. Baker Towers focused on the Novak family while News from Heaven carried on with the Novaks and introduced several new characters. Heat & Light takes it much further. It’s a veritable symphony of voices: an energy tycoon in Houston; a do-gooder geologist/activist; his star protégé, who has gone to the dark side as a fracking consultant; a middle-aged lesbian couple trying to make a go of organic dairy farming; a hypochondriac mother married to a difficult man who signed a lease; a widowed young reverend whose thirty-something husband died of thyroid cancer, probably from radiation exposure following a different (and real) Pennsylvania environmental disaster; the roughnecks working the rigs; a recovering addict who fled Bakerton long ago and is back for a visit; an under equipped police officer trying to catch meth heads. Haigh’s ability to weave all of these threads together and still maintain her focus is impressive.
Topically, the book at times reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion. Both are cautionary tales against fracking. But where Strong Motion was intentionally farfetched and written by an angry twenty-something, Heat & Light is grounded in sobering reality, no doubt informed by Haigh’s own upbringing in a post-coal mining Pennsylvania town. It’s heartbreaking to think that similar situations are probably being played out up and down Appalachia at this very moment.
Heat & Light was released on May 3, 2016 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.