Jul 14

Book Review: Heat & Light

Heat & LightHeat & Light by Jennifer Haigh

This ambitious novel takes on the energy industry from all sides, centered on a western Pennsylvania town of Bakers Towers. It focuses on Kip, the oligarch of the holding company that leases the land to exploit the natural gas, Shane, the salesman who buys the leasing rights. Rich and Shelby Devlin, landowners who hope the lease money will let them run the dairy farm Rich has always wanted, and Rena and Mac, neighboring dairy farmers who are impacted by the fracking despite the fact that they themselves do not sign leases.
I really admire how much work went into this, how disparate the characters are. Except for the academics and protesters, I can’t say I know a lot of people like this in real life. My background hasn’t put me into contact with blue-collar sons and daughters of coal miners nor cowboy-ish Texas oilmen. And I’ve never met anyone who’s even met anyone who worked as a roughneck on an oil rig. So in that respect, it’s a great book. Novels at their best let you live lives far different from your own.

Some of the writing was a little clumsy. For example, I could see when Haigh was trying for a certain literary poetry, but occasionally it seemed a bit transparent. For example, “Herc” (I listened to the book, so I kept hearing it as “Hurk,” as in the sound a cat makes before it vomits a hairball) has a buddy Mike “who is a Christian.” Every time Mike is mentioned, Haigh includes the phrase “who was a Christian.” After like the 5th or 6th time, I said “I get it! He’s Christian!” And when Wes is a child, and they’re learning about 3-mile island, he’s playing the game “Mousetrap” while his parents are dithering about whether or not to evacuate. So, that was well done, kind of subtle. I get it. But later on when he’s referring to the episode as “when I died,” he repeats phrases more than I needed to hear them, and I got the sense that I could tell when the author was trying too hard.

My main problem is that I had a hard time liking the characters. Rich is a sexist, abusive asshole, who works hard to care for his family. The former overwhelmed the latter. His wife is a weak, whiny hypochondriac, who is devoted to her children. The former overwhelmed the latter. Mac is a jealous, stoic and occasionally violent woman, who cares about Rena and about holding up her father’s legacy. The former overwhelmed the latter. Kip is a millionaire who makes money by poisoning people’s lands, who has a really nice toilet. You get the picture. I liked Rena best of all, but even her I didn’t get a great picture of.

Pastor Jess just seemed like an inconsistent character; I couldn’t get why someone who had devoted herself to her fellowship to the point where she was devoting an hour a week to the sucking vortex of need that was Shelby Devlin, and yet she’d consistently blow Shelby off to hang out with a man she barely knew. I get martyr, and I get fun-time gal, but I had a hard time putting those together. I didn’t get what Jess saw in him, what she needed to the point where she was willing to jeopardize her position in the community (which must surely be important to her?) Is having muscles enough? She seemed so shallow, so underwritten that I had to double-check the authors name, as this is the kind of two-dimensional female character who often populate “men’s” fiction. Ditto for Rich’s contempt for Gia when he finds out she’s not chaste. It seemed a very masculine (and not in a good way) way of looking at the world, though perhaps forgiven in Rich’s case for the sake of faithfulness to the character’s conservative upbringing.

To sum up, I greatly admired the ambitious scope of this novel, but I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t expect to like all of them, every novel has some villains and some heroes, and I didn’t expect them to be unflawed, but pretty much every person in this novel was forgettable if not unpleasant.

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