As the debate on the controversial method of hydraulic fracking rages on in the senate, Lamar Herrin delivers his latest novel on the subject, Fractures (Thomas Dunne). Set in the Marcellus Shale formation in upstate New York, the story centers on Frank Joyner and his family, whose farmhouse sits atop a precious and vast reservoir of natural gas. The drilling companies swarm the estate, and their offers to buy out the land become increasingly lucrative, Frank finds himself torn between potential security a deal could give his family and his own moral compass. In the midst of the turmoil, the family congregates for Thanksgiving, and it becomes apparent that, when confronted with the disruption to their home and their land, the Joyners cannot avoid the fissures that exist between its members.
Ominous overtones mark the story from the outset. We meet Frank Joyner, briefly, as a college student, in the midst of a failed suicide attempt. With a history of melancholia in his family, he both berates and applauds himself for being unable to go through with it. Despite the jarring introduction, Frank is an immediately likable character, as we quickly traverse the decades to the present, where he heads his complicated household with humility and, in the eyes of his adoring grandson, Danny, great honor.
Herrin’s writing is at its most vibrant when describing his characters. Frank’s children span the personality spectrum: Gerald, the golden boy of the group, with his measured, jovial optimism, sets him apart from the rest of his largely suffering relatives; Mickey, an English professor, grapples with loneliness and a tortured self-image; and Jen, Danny’s mother, borderline promiscuous and still living with her father. Despite their differences there is a deep affection and respect amongst the siblings for one another and in one late night discussion with her brother, Gerald, Jen asks him his view:
What I want you to tell me is what we look like from out there. What you make of us
This incessant desire for approval plagues the entire family, and much of the novel surrounds their individual plights to re-evaluate their self-worth, brought on with an increased urgency as they grapple with the ethics of the potential hydrofracking deal.
With these persistent questions we meander through the novel, the unanswerability of them weighing so heavily on the family members. Though elegantly put, the questions can, in their heft, weigh too on the reader, with little comic relief or respite from the each individual’s turmoil. Despite their differences and nuanced behaviors, each character seems to possess a similarly poetic and melancholy perspective, which, though elegant at first, becomes soporific as the chapters drag on.
He’d lie in bed at night, and the image that began to appear was of those tall, overlit derricks and of that drill bit spinning down. Through earth, water and various strata of rock before reaching the shale… He was doing it to himself. Every time he lay in bed at night and tried to explore himself, he ended up in the pull of that image. Down and out. Plumb your depths and, then, swing wide.
Nevertheless, the images Herrin conjures are striking. Drawing from his experiences growing up in the South and then teaching at Cornell, the towns and gorges take on characters of their own, imbued with a kind of personality that can only be had when their descriptions go beyond the basic aesthetic. In describing Kenny Brewster, the oil rig retiree tasked with swaying Frank’s decision towards a deal, we perhaps learn more of his character in the few words about his choice of hometown than we do in the more detailed physiological descriptions:
Texas was where men went when they didn’t want to come back, when they didn’t know what they wanted except to get out of town.
Fractures is written with a poignancy and eloquence that belies its heavy subject matter. Despite the gloomy shadows that hover over the characters, we find in each a deep appreciation of beauty, and a seemingly hereditary compulsion to ‘do the right thing.’ For all their flaws and self-doubts, the Joyner family is one to be admired.