A Window Into the Marcellus

Jennifer Haigh brings her considerable talents to the world of fracking
Composite image by Corin Schipani; drill site: Andrewmits/​dreamstime; window: Carlos Caetano/​dreamstime A Window Into the Marcellus
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Heat and Light,” the latest novel from western Pennsylvania native Jennifer Haigh, has tandem virtues. It possesses not only the urgent feel of a story “ripped from the headlines,” as they say, but also the grace and insight of American literary fiction for the ages. The Marcellus Shale boom in Pennsylvania has been examined at length in economic, environmental and political terms. Now we have an emotional exploration of people living and working atop the shale, a portrait of a community refracted through fracking.

Haigh brings considerable bona fides to this story, her sixth book since starting out in 2003. A native of Barnesboro, a Cambria County coal town near Johnstown, she gained national acclaim with “Baker Towers,” her penetrating 2005 novel about the postwar rise and fall of a mining town much like hers. She returned to the fictional setting of Bakerton for “News from Heaven,” a 2013 collection of interlocking stories. “Heat and Light” is also set in Bakerton, but with a new cast of characters and dynamics. Coal represents “a distant memory of boom times, the ghost of prosperity that lingers in the town,” she writes, introducing Bobby Frame, the smooth-​talking landman from a Texas driller that is betting big on Marcellus. “Here, grand promises are met without skepticism. …Bakerton has been favored before, tapped by Industry’s magic wand.”

Born Jennifer Wasilko in 1968, Haigh was raised in a Ukrainian Catholic family, the daughter of a high school English teacher and a school librarian, surrounded by books and storytelling. She studied French at the Protestant redoubt of Dickinson College, and later took an M.A. at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and now lives in Boston. I bring up these biographical details not to establish her pedigree, but to show the life experiences that have contributed to her sublime ability to fathom the lives of people from disparate worlds. She can also construct a sturdy plot that allows a large cast of characters to march through the novel with clarity, their overlapping stories snapping into place.

Rich Devlin is the most emblematic of Bakerton. A native with deep roots, he works as a correctional officer at the state prison, nowadays “the best-​paying job for miles” in Saxon County. He dreams of starting a dairy farm on some of the 60 acres of family land, financed by the gas-​drilling leases he signed with the oily landman, bridge funding obtained from the blacklung payments his coal-​miner father still gets. “The gas company’s offer, which had seemed simple and generous, was neither. He’d been a fool to fall for their opening gambit,” a rock-​bottom rate common at the beginning of the boom. “But Bobby Frame was long gone.”

At the other end, we get Kip “The Whip” Oliphant, the high-​flying Texan behind Dark Elephant, the energy company he grew from his stepfather’s business. Resembling the late Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy, blending his personal financial interests with the firm’s (to his eventual undoing), Kip is a force of nature, in pursuit of the “point of dynamism.” The bold moves he makes from afar rattle the life of Bakerton, above and below ground.

Mack and Rena — “the lesbian dairy farmers who run Friend-​Lea Acres” — have been resisting the siren calls to lease their land, much to the chagrin of immediate neighbors like Rich Devlin. His drilling can’t start until their crucial portion of property is brought into the process. Rena, the brains of the business, has committed to making the farm organic, achieving success selling their artisanal wares in State College, Altoona and Pittsburgh. In one of many finely drawn sketches, Rena visits an upscale locavore restaurant in Pittsburgh called Verdant, which is “completely transparent about its sourcing,” says the chefowner, Natalie Lavender. As a result, she cancels her Friend-​Lea dairy account. “Our customers read the newspaper. They know what’s going on in your part of the world,” she relates. “When customers see Saxon County on the menu, they think gas drilling,” hence polluted ground water. Rena protests that her land is clean. But perception wins.

At her next Pittsburgh account, a groovy little health-​food store, Rena meets Lorne Trexler, an anti-​fracking activist and geology professor at an expensive liberal arts college. “The man was her own age, lean and wiry, handsome in a long-​haired way,” and that encounter plants the seed for much of the action that plays out through the rest of “Heat and Light,” as push comes to shove, personally and geologically.

(Pittsburghers who food shop in the East End will appreciate Rena’s last destination on this trip: “Whole Harvest, the giant natural foods store. …She made two tours of the parking lot before finding a space.”)

Haigh is a rare contemporary writer who engages religious faith in an organic way, not as a subculture ripe for ridicule. The Rev. Jess Peacock, pastor of Living Waters, is an anchor of the story. She took over the nondenominational Bible fellowship church after her husband, Pastor Wesley, died of thyroid cancer at 34 (a condition he believed resulted from exposure to radiation as a child living near the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979). Pastor Jess is sincere, but not immune to the annoyances of the secular world; Haigh’s portrait is pitch-​perfect.

As anyone reading today’s headlines knows, the Pennsylvania drilling boom has taken a pause, and “Heat and Light” charts that after-​effect as well, the bevy of characters using this fallow period to take stock. “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath,” Haigh concludes. “Accidents of geology, larger than history, older than Scripture. …In the time before time, Pennsylvania was booby-​trapped.” We are lucky to have a writer with the acuity of Jennifer Haigh to shine a light within.

Short Takes: New Selections from Pittsburgh Authors

One of the most powerful figures in modern American intelligence, a four-​star Air Force general who was the only person to serve as head of the all-​seeing National Security Agency and the all-​encompassing Central Intelligence Agency, is, basically, a regular guy from the North Side.

He certainly comes across that way in his many media appearances, where he combines folksy charm with steely resolve. Gen. Michael V. Hayden’s “Playing to the Edge” is a memoir of his time at the center of some of the most trying times imaginable in U.S. security policy and is essential reading for anyone with even a glimmer of interest in the fate of the nation.

Surrounded by pages swimming in the alphabet soup of the intelligence community (CTC seeks EITs on HVDs, but DNI might say not A-​OK), there is a 12-​page chapter that cleanses the palate: “Going Home (Pittsburgh, Pa. 19452014).” Gen. Hayden lovingly recalls his childhood neighborhood, which was demolished to make way for Three Rivers Stadium and now Heinz Field. Family friends with the Rooneys, he attended North Catholic High School, “worked my way through the history stacks” at the North Side Carnegie Library and went on to ROTC at Duquesne University. “The older I get, the more fundamental the problems and issues seem to be,” he writes, “and the more I count on the basic values that I learned here in Pittsburgh, at my mom and dad’s knee.” Then it’s back to scoping out nuclear reactors in Syria.

History will show whether he was the right man at the right time, but he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable questions in this forthright account.

Elsewhere in the world of international affairs, a Middle East researcher at the Pittsburgh office of RAND Corp. has just released a highly readable account of one of our greatest foreign policy challenges. Subtitled “A Post-​Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East,” the book makes sense of the past 15 years Shelly Culbertson has spent in Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt not only for RAND, but also as a U.S. Foreign Service officer for Turkey.

The leaders of RAND take pride in their nonpartisan and rational analysis, which can be, at least for a general audience, on the dry side. Culbertson, who took her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh, strikes a happy balance in “The Fires of Spring.” This first-​person account of working in complicated places matches the professional rigor of RAND with her open eyes and heart. The book, she says, “is written out of love for a region that delights with its friendships, aesthetics, heritage, adventures and professional opportunities. It is written out of frustration with the destruction of people and places.”

Speaking of mixing love for a region with professional chops: Geophysicist Bob Regan has updated his 2004 work, “The Steps of Pittsburgh,” just in time for the national media lovefest for Pittsburgh.

An enterprising soul could make this new book, “Pittsburgh Steps,” the cornerstone of an urban-​adventure green tourism agency. Regan has counted 739 sets of steps in the city; 344 are considered legal streets. “City steps were, in essence, the city’s first mass transportation system,” he writes, an answer to “the land’s undulating terrain.”

With dozens of sharp photographs by Jeff Wingard, and a gorgeous cover painting by Cynthia Cooley, “Pittsburgh Steps” should catalyze interest in preserving one of the city’s aspects that many people might just overlook. Gentlepeople, start your Fitbit and get climbing!

I don’t know how to break this to Gregory Curtis, a wise and witty writer with sterling values, but I don’t really need the services of “Family Capital.”

But — some of my dear friends do, and I highly recommend that they buy multiple copies and read them together at the next family meeting.

The Pittsburgh-​based founder of Greycourt & Co., a wealth advisory firm for the rather rich, Curtis made his bones with the Mellon family office in the 1970s. His latest book distills the knowledge he has accumulated from decades of steering wealthy families through the perils of intergenerational wealth preservation. Told through a composite family — “the Titans” — Curtis shows how to stop dissipation while keeping humanity intact. As one character dispensing advice in the book says, explaining the success of the Rothschilds over centuries, “they have focused heavily on maintaining the emotional and intellectual capital in the family. They figure that, if they do that well, the financial capital will take care of itself.”

Curtis does note that the middle-​income investor will gain perspective from the book: “You will likely recognize not just rich people talking, but your own family making its way through the selfsame struggles.” Even if the financial capital doesn’t accrue, it is still good advice to tend to your family’s emotional wealth.

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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