Haigh, who wrote a morally complex, narrowly focused book about the hot-button issue of child molestation by Catholic priests in Faith (2011), takes a broader approach in this sprawling, thickly populated novel about fracking.
The setting is Bakerton, Pennsylvania, the fictional former mining town that was the subject of Haigh's elegiac affection in Baker’s Towers (2005). In 2010, the town is full of vacant storefronts and financially struggling citizens when “landmen” arrive and start convincing local landowners to sign leases with Dark Elephant Energy allowing the Houston company to dig for natural gas along the Marcellus Shale. Chief executive Kip Oliphant is a caricature of a glad-handing wheeler-dealer Texas tycoon, always looking for the “Next Big Play.” He’s too easy a villain, and neither his divorce woes nor his ridiculously nicknamed friends play as funny as they’re meant to. There’s even less humor in Bakerton. Prison guard Rich Devlin and his dissatisfied wife, Shelby, a neurotically protective mother, are one of the first to sign a lease—for too little money per acre, they soon learn. Then the digging noise begins to keep them awake, their water turns undrinkable, and their sickly daughter gets sicker (or does she?). Meanwhile at the organic dairy farm next door, lesbian partners Mack and Rena refuse to sign. Rena is soon drawn into the larger anti-fracking movement and finds herself dangerously attracted to a male activist. A supporting cast includes deadbeats, shysters, meth-heads, preachers, and assorted troubled neighbors and relatives, each given his or her moment center-stage. Haigh is as wonderful as ever at capturing emotional undercurrents—Rich’s backyard family barbecue is classic—but her humor is often flat-footed, her message obvious, and her tone preachy even for those in agreement.
This ambitious but flawed attempt at a 21st-century Dickensian novel shows how difficult it is to write convincing polemical fiction.