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"Heat and Light" by Jennifer Haigh (Ecco, $26.99, 448 pages)

Any novelist who decides to write about a subject that’s the stuff of daily newspaper headlines faces a daunting challenge: how to tell a plausible story that isn’t quickly overtaken by tomorrow’s events. That’s the task Jennifer Haigh has posed for herself in her fifth novel, Heat and Light, the story of a small Western Pennsylvania town’s encounter with the Marcellus Shale boom.

To say that Haigh succeeds admirably would be an understatement. Peopled with believable and sympathetic characters who range from bartenders to corporate CEOs, Heat and Light skillfully confronts the complex economic, environmental and social issues spawned by the discovery of vast reserves of natural gas in the Commonwealth. It’s also an engrossing story that never loses sight of the overriding novelistic imperative to tell a good tale.

Haigh returns to the town of Bakerton she created in her novel Baker Towers and revisited in the short-story collection News from Heaven. The novel’s main action is set in the recent past, as the Houston-based company Dark Elephant Energy races against its competitors to lease mineral rights and begin drilling operations. At the center of the story are two couples: Rich and Shelby Devlin, who have leased part of their land to Dark Elephant, and Rena Koval and Mack Mackey, a middle-aged lesbian couple running a nearby organic dairy farm, who refuse to lease their land.

After drilling has started on the Devlins’ property, Shelby, who already demonstrates an obsessive concern for her daughter’s health, insists that the water now emits an unusual smell and is sickening the young girl. That development allows Haigh to explore the controversy over the environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” She does that principally through the character of Lorne Trexler, a geology professor and environmental activist.

Although her sympathies seem to lie with fracking’s opponents, Haigh doesn’t try to impose a set of prepackaged conclusions on the reader. She appears more interested in motivating a broader reflection on how America will satisfy its insatiable need for energy to keep our massive economic engine running than she is in identifying heroes or villains.

One of the devices she employs is a flashback to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in March 1979, “an unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system.” Those who experienced it will feel a shiver of recognition at her description of the event, recalling the dread that flowed from the sense that those in charge had no grasp of the potential for a Chernobyl-like disaster. Haigh links that incident to her story through Wesley Peacock, a 7-year-old boy who lives in the shadow of the plant. Twenty-six years later, serving a church in Bakerton, he is diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and a few months later he is dead, all the while suspecting his exposure to TMI radiation is the cause.

Haigh also subtly exposes the truth that exploitation of resources, like oil, coal and now natural gas, has been part of the history and culture of towns like Bakerton for more than 150 years. However long the frenzy may last before the resources are exhausted (or, as now, unprofitable to extract), for the residents of these towns, the equation often is reduced to a question of economic survival: scarce jobs, like prison correctional officer or nurse, are at the higher end of the economic ladder, and young people find themselves faced with the choice between bleak prospects if they remain and leaving to seek opportunity elsewhere. “There was the Bakerton of his father’s day,” Rich Devlin reflects in a grim summing up, “a thriving boomtown that reeked of its bony piles; or the Bakerton his own generation had inherited and largely fled, a ghost town that was perfectly clean.”

Haigh, who was born in tiny Barnesboro, Pennsylvania and graduated from Dickinson College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has an instinctive feel for the rhythms of small-town life. And from the detail in her description of the drilling operation and the lives of the nomadic crews who risk their bodies in this tough, dangerous work, it’s evident she’s done her homework where necessary. While there are moments when the novel feels overstuffed – reflected in a pair of romantic subplots that don’t really go anywhere – Haigh’s skill at developing her principal characters and introducing plausible complications maintains the story’s momentum.

“More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath,” Haigh observes as Heat and Light concludes. Her Bakerton could be the proxy for hundreds of small Pennsylvania towns. Haigh’s novel is a masterly demonstration of the nearly miraculous job fiction can do of revealing some of life’s realities better than even the most skillful journalists.

Email Harvey Freedenberg at hfreedenberg@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.

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