This essay originally aired on July 28, 2016.
Heat & Light is Jennifer Haigh’s third novel about the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s a place that has lost its mining industry and is trying to find other ways to restore the economy. Not much is possible. As Haigh’s narrator says of Bakerton, “every worthwhile thing has already happened. The town is all aftermath.”
What do people do when the mines that gave them purpose have shut down? Some search out what will make them feel better: alcohol, heroin, meth, sex. Their addictions lead to poor health and crime. Those employed are doctors, nurses, addiction counselors, prison officers, bar owners, policemen, pastors. The next generation might go to Penn State or other universities, but will they be financially and emotionally prepared to succeed?
Into this downward spiral comes the fracking industry. The novel reminds us that, since its statehood, Pennsylvania has been an energy center. There’s Drake’s oil well in Titusville, the coal mines north of Johnstown, nuclear energy at Three Mile Island, and now fracking. As one natural fuel is depleted or becomes too expensive, another takes its place.
In Baker Towers, Haigh’s first novel about Bakerton, the community lived and died together, united by the coal underneath them. Fracking may bring money to some, but not unity. As the name Heat & Light implies, fracking separates. While the mines in Bakerton drew upon local labor, the fracking company in this novel imports its laborers from Texas, housing them in makeshift barracks. Bakerton residents may lease their land for drilling, but there is no pride in watching their timber discarded and farm land bulldozed while they wait for the money that may or may not come.
And there is unforeseen danger. Companies hire contractors, who hire sub-contractors. Mining and nuclear energy and fracking are safe, until they aren’t. Bakerton can only benefit from gas drilling, until wells go bad.
Haigh has said that Heat & Light is not a novel about fracking. It is about the soul of a community, and when Bakerton residents sign over their gas rights to Dark Elephant Energy, they make a pact with the devil.
What turns all of this into a perfectly crafted novel is Haigh’s brilliant writing, as she moves among more than a dozen main characters, involving us in their lives.
Heat & Light is Haigh’s most philosophical novel, and as a good philosopher, she is prophetic. When Lynn Neary of NPR traveled with the author to her Pennsylvania home town of Northern Cambria, they spotted the first signs of fracking, echoing her fictional story in Bakerton. On the night that Neary’s segment aired on All Things Considered, the Cambria County television station announced that the former state prison in Cresson just might be turned into, you guessed it, an electrical generation plant powered by natural gas. If you want to learn how an exceptional writer turns fiction into truth, read Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light.
“Heat & Light” is written by Jennifer Haigh. It’s published by Ecco.
Reviewer Kirk Weixel is a professor emeritus at Saint Francis University, where he teaches creative writing and literature.