Frank Joyner, the lead character in Lamar Herrin’s new novel, Fractures, is a man with many roles—he’s a peacekeeper, re-claimer, survivor and architect. Above all else, though, Frank's a family man.
From Fractures' opening pages, Herrin instills in the reader Frank’s keen understanding, and subsequent wariness, of family history. As Frank walks through the idyllic fields of the Northeast countryside that have been owned and guarded by his family for generations, it's clear that the land is a refuge for hermetic, 60-year-old Frank. The land’s presence as a refuge and escape, however, is merely pretense. Quickly, the façade fades away and Frank’s picturesque land becomes the novel’s epicenter for the hydrofracking debate. Herrin describes hydrofracking—a controversial process in which the earth is drilled up to a mile deep, then a mile wide to extract natural gases—as a type of “war.” And it’s a war fought primarily within families.
While family is the story’s core, employing a socioeconomic topic as controversial as hydrofracking as the heart of the plot took careful navigation. “I did not want to write a political novel,” Herrin says. “I wanted to write a novel about family. This is a hot issue up here. It is a very divisive issue among families. We live close to the Pennsylvania line in New York and people were getting worried.” So worried, in fact, that Herrin drove an hour and a half south to a courthouse in Montrose, Pennsylvania, to see for himself the effects of hydrofracking.
It was at this Susquehanna County courthouse, hallways lined with desks to accommodate the scads of families filing land rights papers against one another, where Herrin first became inspired to write the novel. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, there are going to be family members vying with other family members as to who would get to drill what,’ and that interested me as a dramatic catalyst for the book.”
Avoiding sides, Herrin skillfully maintains a neutral tone throughout, instead using Frank’s family to embody diverse viewpoints regarding the hydrofracking debate. Frank, who oscillates between pro- and anti-fracking, is never cemented in his stance. “He is the opposite of an intransigent character,” Herrin notes.
In fact, Frank’s greatest problem is that he’s entirely incapable of ignoring anyone’s opinion. Pressure to drill mounts from Frank’s sisters and his ex-brother-in-law, Wilson Michaels, a New York City lawyer who homes in on the mounds of money to be made. Money is one drilling benefit Frank cannot abdicate. He knows what the income would mean for his family, especially his daughter Jen, a single parent whose child Danny has never met his father.
There’s also Frank’s youngest son Mickey, the most complex and conflicted character in Fractures. Mickey thrives on the idea of the “symbolic act” and incessantly implores Frank to act in defiance of the gas companies, despite acknowledging any such act as fruitless. “Mickey is so volatile, he doesn’t have solid ground to stand on,” Herrin says. “His sense of reality is so confused he thinks when he goes back and sleeps in his boyhood room it’s a regeneration of his boyhood.”
Though Mickey’s journey brings him home again, it’s new territory for Herrin. “I have been living up in Ithica, New York, since 1977 and I had never written anything set up here and I am not sure why,” Herrin says. “Most of my early reading was in Southern literature, and that sense of place in Southern literature is so strong. I can’t imagine writing a book that does not have, or try to have, a strong sense of place.” Because of the depth of imagery in his writing and palpable history with the region, Herrin creates a dialogue between the natural world and human necessity, two colliding forces that must eventually reach a breaking point.
Ultimately, despite these underlying battles, Frank, Mickey and the Joyner family are fighting for resolution, something that feels less and less attainable as the story unfolds. “If it were easily resolvable, you would not write a book about it,” Herrin explains. “For novels you want issues that tempt being laid to rest, that have social complexity about them that can engage all the characters.”
The question then becomes: Can Frank Joyner, who believes so steadfastly in family, hold his own together? Fractures provides a complex answer, riddled with devastating conclusions.
“I want to be in the company of characters and situations that strike a deep chord and have a certain kind of rock-bottom reality to them,” Herrin says. “That is why I am drawn to family history; it’s self-replenishing in its drama. I do not think it ever reaches a point of perfect stability.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas.