The Trouble with Fracking Fiction

A character in Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel, Heat and Light, allegedly poisons her daughter but tries to convince her husband and friends that the child’s undiagnosed sickness is due to shale gas drilling happening in her backyard.

After learning about the suspected poisoning, an environmental activist bristles at a colleague’s suggestion that the daughter should no longer be used as a poster child for the dangers of hydraulic fracturing near homes. No one can prove the mother is poisoning her daughter, the environmental activist says, so it makes sense to let people believe the girl is getting sick from the fracking in her backyard.51z3EARP3OL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

“We deal in perceptions. Our role is to raise questions, Cassandra sounding the alarm,” claims the activist, who also works as a geology professor at a local college. “The DEP. The huge fracking propaganda machine that’s telling the world fracking is safe. Trust me … You have no idea what we’re up against.”

The activist’s decision to overlook the real cause of the girl’s illness is shocking, the most dramatic incident in an otherwise low-key novel. Unlike the shale gas workers in the book, who are portrayed as hard workers just trying to make a living, Haigh frames industry critics as either morally corrupt or delusional.

There are no gods in “Heat and Light,” but the portrayal of the anti-fracking activist comes close to demonization. As for the mother who allegedly poisoned her daughter, some readers may feel empathy because of Haigh’s flashback to the mother’s traumatic upbringing.

Another character who lacks nuance, but who Haigh chooses not to demonize, is a corporate CEO who heads a Texas-based energy company that is a leading natural gas driller in Pennsylvania. The CEO is a caricature of former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, who died in a fiery automobile crash earlier this year. The CEO’s corporate philosophy and trajectory — from the controversial well participation plan to starting up his own exploration and production company after he gets fired from the company he built — match the life of McClendon over the final decade of his life.

“Heat and Light” is a story of wrong choices, human frailties and humdrum lives. The book, published by HarperCollins, focuses on working people. “There are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after,” a character says. Aside from the CEO, most of the people in “Heat and Light” work the type of jobs where you shower when you get home.

“Heat and Light” contains a string of vignettes about these working class lives. The book, Haigh’s fifth novel, is non-linear as it flashes back to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident and other earlier episodes in the lives of the Pennsylvania residents.

In a promotional Q&A about the book, Haugh explains she doesn’t think about plot when she’s writing a novel. Instead, she looks at how a single event has consequences that lead to more consequences. “I never know where the chain of causality will lead me,” Haugh says.

Novelists and screenwriters have struggled to capture the essence of the shale gas revolution in a compelling way. “Promised Land,” the 2012 Hollywood feature film starring Matt Damon, used shale gas drilling in small-town America as a vehicle for examining the sometimes volatile relations between local residents and corporate outsiders. The film didn’t offer much for the average moviegoer because it lacked dynamic characters, offered little intrigue and drama, and, surprisingly, didn’t drill deeply into the issue of hydraulic fracturing.

On TV, ABC aired 10 episodes of “Blood & Oil,” a soap opera about the oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. The show was canceled due to poor ratings.

The problem with fictional accounts of the fracking boom is the real thing proves far more captivating. The shale gas rush has spawned enough compelling stories about companies and individuals to make fictional accounts seem redundant.

The best storytelling about the fracking boom has come mostly from newspaper reporters who decided to write nonfiction books about real people and real events. Tom Wilber’s “Under the Surface,” Russell Gold’s “The Boom,” and Seamus McGraw’s “The End of Country,” present nonfiction accounts of the shale gas revolution and offer deep insights into the minds of people impacted by the industry.

Based on her research, Haugh believes the debate over shale gas drilling is about class. The ban on fracking in New York was the result of a concerted effort by “highly educated, politically liberal environmental activists,” she says in the Q&A. “In Pennsylvania, the conversation is completely different. … The environmental arguments that won over New York voters don’t fly there. For working class people with no economic security, that kind of idealism is an unaffordable luxury.”

This line of thinking is probably why Haigh made the book’s leading anti-fracking activist a college professor. And it could be why the only working class person in the book who expresses strong concerns about drilling turns out to be a mentally unstable mother who is seemingly poisoning her child.

The debate over shale gas drilling, of course, is more nuanced than portrayed by Haugh. Large numbers of working class people in Pennsylvania have organized against shale gas drilling over the past 10 years, while large landowners in New York have complained about the state’s decision to block fracking.

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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