Oil, coal, natural gas. Western Pennsylvania is no stranger to having its resources exploited for money. In fact, the earth in the region has been plundered for centuries in the name of industry, in the name of progress. In Heat & Light, Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel she looks at the newest land use development in western PA—fracking. Of course, fracking is not only occurring in this region (and the scenes in the novel radiate out from the locale to places as far away as California and Texas), but as Haigh knows, the people she writes about in the fictional Bakerton have a long history of living off, struggling with, and resigning themselves to their environments. Haigh highlights this at the end of the novel when she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”
Each person in the novel is connected to the town or the gas drilling industry. The novel follows a multitude of characters from the men who work on the drilling to the scientist whose work is funded by the industry to the stay-at-home mom whose ill child is drinking contaminated water. Before the reader can get too comfortable with any one story, the narrative focus switches to a new person in the community who has been affected by fracking. This structure could potentially be a weakness; I found myself often wanting to stay with characters who left the scene quickly. However, the threads of the individual’s stories are not dropped. They are weaved into the other characters’ lives, even when we flash back to the characters’ childhoods or their afterlives. The structure is fractured in a way that reminds the reader of the cracks in the earth caused by the drilling for natural gas. Everything is connected but all of the characters’ ties to each other are a little broken too.
Many of the characters in the book believe that fracking could save or destroy their town and their individual lives. But what Haigh shows the reader is not only dramatic change in the noises, machines, and people the new industry brings, but also the stasis that can revolve around many people’s existences despite the changes taking place. The novel ends with Rich Devlin, a prison security guard who sold his mineral rights with the hope of making enough money to farm his family’s land, realizing that his dreams will never come true and that even with all of the commotion of the gas drilling he is in a similar place—if not worse off—than when this all started. The book ends with the line, “We are all sailors,” which might make one think that the lesson here is that life is fundamentally an adventure. However, a paragraph before the reader is told what Devlin took from his time in the Navy. He was taught “his place in the world, his basic and inescapable smallness.” To be a sailor then is to be aware of your smallness. Haigh does not critique our narrow lives. Rather she takes an opportunity to turn attention to places and people who find that very often there is little light shone their way.