In the wake of the country’s choice of a president-defect, many calls have gone out to “understand” those who voted for Mr. Trump. Many of those calls have been delivered in that slightly condescending way that — oh yeah — led urban intellectuals to assume Hillary Clinton’s election win.
I ignored all these pleas. We survived Nixon, we survived Carter, we survived W. Also, I have lived among Trump people for roughly 75 percent of my life. I know what they think, how they present it, and blah, blah, protest now, blah. Give me a story, I thought. I don’t need Van Jones’s or Kayleigh McEnany’s deep thoughts anymore.
So naturally, I chose Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, Heat & Light, which plopped me right down in Pennsylvania Trump country, somewhat closer to Philadelphia than where my cousins are scattered.
The Marcellus shale fields look like a fan on Pennsylvania’s map, running northeast from its southwest corner. In that fan, Haigh’s fictional Bakerton, Saxon County, is a rural dump, a failed place following coal extraction that recalled my teenaged question to my father on a trip to visit relatives in Armstrong County: “How’d Uncle Jack find this place — throw a dart at a map?” This novel’s locale, however, could be anywhere in the state 100 miles from Philly or 40 from the 'burgh.
In other words, we’re deep among the Trumpettes, where 30-ish Bobby Frame is signing up landowners, most poorer than that term suggests, to allow fracking under their feet, or maybe under that useless back acreage.
Focus is on the Devlins, a young couple with a healthy amount of semi-useless land. Rich Devlin is a guard at the local prison; his wife Shelby is introduced in her bathrobe. She lets Frame and a trainee with their company (Dark Elephant!) into her home for a drilling-rights pitch. Frame signs up the couple and notices Rich “drew the letters deliberately, like a schoolboy who knows his penmanship is poor.” The guard is the novel’s first fleshed-out character, a fairly humane watchdog of “city hoodlums from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia” — Hops, for example, shot in the hip after robbing a Wawa in Montco, and Wanda, a transgender woman. (Haigh is good at minor characters.)
Just as his town is named for its mining founders, Rich is named for his father, and thus, is seemingly “condemned, like all namesakes, to carry another’s history, of bloopers and missteps, of lost promise.”
Haigh also firmly draws the money boys, the Texas-based oil and gas players who worry about investors in cowboy hats, that possibly gay employee who’s still useful, and the fact that a horizontal well in Pennsylvania costs 3 million dollars, a full million over the Texas cost. She also depicts the men who work the drill sites and live in prison-like work camps.
Drilled shale could be salvation for Rich and Shelby, but something else for organic dairy farmers Mack and Rena, who are lesbians.
Haigh is an inventive and observant writer, and she gets the lives she’s writing about, those who must somehow balance a balloon payment against collecting on a loan to an ancient relative. She can trace the path of the local science whiz to drug addiction without stopping in a meth lab.
Did this story change my mind about people I’ve known all my life? No. They — the real they — made a hideous mistake this year; Haigh’s fictional they inspire sympathy or, minimally, understanding. Nobody clobbers anybody at this book’s activist rallies.
Haigh captures these very human characters well. Most are not geniuses, but neither are most sophisticates. The novel is worth a read, but not if you’re trying to escape modern politics for a bit.