Book review: Coal town struggles are heartfelt in 'News From Heaven'
March 20, 2013 8:00 AM
By Mackenzie Smith
"News From Heaven," the novelist Jennifer Haigh's first collection of short stories, is an excellent example of an emerging genre of American fiction: the decline of the American industrial town. Through the voices of a diverse cast of small-town characters, including a spinster, a teacher, a farmer's daughter and a prodigal son, Ms. Haigh chronicles life in the fictional Pennsylvania coal town of Bakerton, from its prewar heyday to its present struggle for survival in post-Reagan America.
One unusual aspect of Ms. Haigh's narrative is that she uses all types of characters, except miners, to examine a mining town. Instead, she explores otherness, loss, isolation, longing and community through the lives of those on the social sidelines of Bakerton, the town she created and illuminated for her 2005 novel "Baker Towers."
"NEWS FROM HEAVEN"
By Jennifer Haigh HarperCollins ($25.99).
The high school principal's daughter narrates the story "Favorite Son." When her otherwise loving father unthinkingly tells her that the high school football star was "the best thing ever to come out of Bakerton," she notes that her father "was a gentle soul and meant nothing by it. I didn't point out that Bakerton also produced me."
Several of the stories in "News From Heaven" are narrated by women whose relationship to the town is mediated by reflections on their mothers' lives. Ms. Haigh uses various perspectives effectively in the intertwining stories about the Novaks, the family at the center of "Baker Towers." Ms. Haigh's deft use of narrative voices produces the feel of a patiently collected archive of local gossip.
Many of Bakerton's residents share a dark fatalism. In "Thrift," Agnes Lubicki watches a young rock band set up "thinking how, in a few years, they will find jobs and wives, lose and then replace them. Children will be born, parents buried, paychecks cashed, time cards punched." Diminished expectations of life are not uncommon.
Agnes' father, a miner who died of black lung was "by local standards ... considered lucky: to have a daughter who'd never married ... who happened to be a nurse." For Joyce Novak, a schoolteacher who left her beloved and hard-earned career to become a full-time mother, "Freedom is ... unimaginable, as exotic as walking on the moon."
In dealing with a declining small town, Ms. Haigh, of necessity, reflects on both the ambivalence of those who leave and the feelings of those who stay. While the guilt of leaving seems to loom larger for Ms. Haigh, she deals subtly with the emotions of Bakerton's residents.
Joyce envies the freedom of her brother Sandy, who left after high school, disappearing, "like a magic trick, as dizzying and complete." Others envied him as well. In "To the Stars," he was remembered as a man who "did whatever the hell he wanted." Sandy's struggle with a gambling addiction and the guilt of repeatedly disappointing Joyce shows the limits of the freedom his friends and family so envied.
"Favorite Son" chronicles a different way of leaving a dying town, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Football hero Mitch Stanek escapes on a scholarship, but prematurely returns, setting off speculation about his reason. Mitch's return had nothing to do with the snares of college life. He had a secret that was only safe within the insular world of Bakerton.
Ms. Haigh's stories show that while some resentment is directed at those who escape, their feelings of guilt are more self-imposed. In "The Bottom of Things," a first-generation energy mogul, Ray, is pleasantly surprised by his warm homecoming. Similarly, in "Broken Star," an expatriate writer discovers her family's pride in her accomplishments far outweighs the hurtfulness of her absence.
Ms. Haigh, who now lives in Boston, grew up in Barnesboro, a small Cambria County mining town. Her well-crafted stories show her familiarity with the complex emotions inherent in leaving a small town.
While "News From Heaven" is filled with stunted ambition, hopelessness, hard times and occasional shocks of violence, these stories are also tender, revealing Ms. Haigh's deep love and empathy for her own people. The challenges of small-town life are offset by the pervasive decency of Bakerton's townspeople and the tenderness they show one another, from a schoolteacher who accepts the thoughtful favor of a student she later helps after a vicious attack, to the townspeople's solicitousness toward the mentally ailing heiress of the Baker dynasty.
One of the qualities I appreciated most about "News From Heaven" was Ms. Haigh's ability to use beautifully drawn phrases to depict Bakerton through the eyes of its townspeople. Sometimes wry (a local band called "Reagan Cheese"), sometimes heartbreaking, as when Rebecca Hauser returns to Bakerton after college, observes that "driving down Main Street was like visiting a beloved aunt in hospice." Ms. Haigh's writing gives her stories a vivid emotional power. It left me rooting for Bakerton, its townspeople, and most of all, for Jennifer Haigh.