There’s a lot going on in the Texas town where René Steinke’s third novel, Friendswood, is set, much of it bad news. A hurricane has revealed carcinogens dumped in the Gulf Coast community’s soil, and one woman, Lee, is determined to see a developer exposed for it. Willa, a high-school girl, was drugged and sexually assaulted at a party, but the locals are disinclined to hear her story. Classmate Dex fears that helping Willa would send him afoul of the football-team bullies who drugged her, while Hal is finding his churchgoing compassion is challenged by his need to keep his family afloat.
Friendswood is a smart and propulsive novel, rich with observations about the (sometimes hypocritical) culture of the town where Steinke grew up. But it took a while for Steinke to consider the place as a subject for fiction: Her previous novels were set in Valparaiso, Indiana (The Fires, 1999), and Greenwich Village (the National Book Award Nominated Holy Skirts, 2005). Now a New Yorker, she says living away from Texas helped her reimagine it. “It’s partly the Friendswood I knew when I was growing up, and partly a more contemporary version of itself,” she says. “I need to distance myself from the real place when I’m writing—that’s important somehow. If I get too tangled up in the facts it can stop the story.”
The novel alternates perspectives among its four main characters, but one theme that threads them together is religion, which is alternately a salve and barrier. “My father is a very left-leaning minister, and most of the religion in the book is more conservative,” she says.” I grew up very much around this more conservative Christianity, with fundamentalist evangelicals, and I really wanted to show the humanity in people who have that faith. I really didn’t want to satirize them, or make fun of them. At the same time, I wasn’t going to falsely praise it. Through Hal and Willa I wanted to explore how religion got them through the day.”
Steinke’s father provided assistance for a crucial scene in the novel, where Willa meets her pastor for help and gets a round of victim-blaming for her trouble. (“Willa, have you ever thought that might be a blessing that you lost your memory?” she’s told.) Willa is stalked by demonic visions of a menacing dog—a kind of manifestation of the apocalyptic, Rapture-soaked religion in which she grew up. “As I was imagining Willa, I thought, if she heard these sermons, if she was steeped in that kind of talk and that kind of culture, the Rapture might be something she’s afraid of,” she says. “But once she’s trying to recover from this trauma, it might be something she wishes for. Those things are at work for her, especially for somebody who’s highly imaginative and inclined to dreaminess and moodiness.”
Lee, whose daughter died years earlier from the carcinogens in the Friendswood soil, is similarly molded by the culture around her, and just as interested in pushing against it. Her revelations about the town’s toxicity are met with disinterest and then anger as her research threatens to scotch a developer’s investment (and Hal’s job). In time, Lee’s own rage pushes her to consider eco-terrorism as a response.
That makes Lee the latest addition to the gallery of smart, confrontational women who drive Steinke’s fiction. “My first novel is about a young female arsonist who is trying to make a statement through setting fires—and I hope she’s a sympathetic character,” she says. “And my second novel is about an early performance artist, very out there, extremely promiscuous—in a lot of ways she’s trying to react against the things that have happened to her. Lee is very much in that mode. I seem to be drawn to female characters who are somehow pushed to the edge and act out on the world around them somehow.”
Writing Friendswood brought Steinke back to the Texas writers she admires, including well-known ones (Katherine Anne Porter, Cormac McCarthy), up-and-comers (Bret Anthony Johnson) and some more obscure: She’s a particular fan of William Goyen, whose best-known novel, 1950’s The House of Breath, is also set in small-town Texas. “I do think my next novel is going to be set in Texas,” she says. “Probably not Friendswood, but I think I’m going to stick with Texas for a while.”
Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Phoenix.