Fractures

  • Lamar Herrin
  • Thomas Dunne Books
  • 320 pp.

The disharmonious strains of a family’s life surface in a controversial issue of land use.

Fracking, an increasingly controversial method of extracting natural gas from underground deposits, has been criticized for the impact it can have on the lives of those residing near it. In Lamar Herrin’s new novel about landowners on the East Coast’s gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, however, the tangible effects of leakage and contamination are something of a side issue. His protagonists, the Joyner family, confront drilling abstractly, on the level of fundamental ethics: In the positions they take on the question of leasing their land, they embody general debates of restraint versus ambition and pragmatism versus idealism.

Despite the novel’s focus on disharmonious family life, Fractures is something of an ironic title. Although the Joyners’ politics diverge and drive them apart, they share mutual understanding and an implicit awareness of their interconnection, which is strong enough to make the family seem more like one unified, if complex, character than an ensemble.

The third child, Mickey, who teaches American history, is the subject of a particularly nuanced psychological portrait. He is at once the smartest and the least mature of the Joyners, and his opposition to leasing the family land to a gas company is motivated at least in part by contrarianism and a need for attention. He has a self-destructive tendency to live his life as a sort of performance, a trait of which the reader is apprised in a manner that typifies the novel’s style: “His sister knew that, offstage and brought to a halt, Mickey ran the risk of making a real wreck of his life. Frank knew that Mickey was the most vulnerable of his children … .”

Thus, the insights of individual family members, and the things these characters know about each other, are presented as a sort of collage that allows the reader to know each Joyner completely. The characters’ discrete perspectives seem to merge so well that, while there are things that they don’t mention, there’s little any family member seems not to know, even when it comes to matters as speculative as Mickey’s romantically doomed fate. Fractures is a novel with few real secrets but many unsaids.

It is also an overwhelmingly character-driven novel. While the book jacket suggests that whether or not to lease the land is the novel’s central issue, that question is resolved relatively early on. What remains, then, is to explore the motivations of the Joyners in taking the actions they do, while gradually unpacking and making more explicit traumatic pasts and family dynamics that are present from the very first page.

The opening scene, in fact, relates a decades-past suicide attempt by the family patriarch, Frank. Frank is likely the novel’s protagonist (insofar as it has just one), and readers might expect the book to build toward such an event as a climax. Instead, Herrin lays his cards on the table early, making it clear from the start that Frank will never go through with the sort of dramatic act to which he, like his son Mickey, is drawn by a strange combination of disposition and destiny. Such narrative frankness makes for a read that is not tense, but rather a journey of slow contemplation.

Reflective pacing lends itself well to depicting the family land itself, which is treated with such diligent concern that it is in some ways a non-human character. It is omnipresent in the lives of the people that own and interact with it, providing spiritual experiences for some and weighing on others as a burden.

When one of the Joyner children enters into a romantic relationship with a married gas-company employee, it is as though real estate, more than anyone’s spouse, is being cheated on. Thus, as the adulterous couple undertakes a romantic getaway at a bed and breakfast, they talk of sneaking away from the watchful eye of the land: “Jen announced they had two days and nights here, and guess what? There was nothing down there, Kenny, nothing. Approximately ten miles farther south the Marcellus had petered out, and for two days, at least, he could be his own man.” The somewhat mystical quality of this dialogue, and the willingness of its speakers to take real action on symbolic grounds, are omnipresent in the novel, and link nearly all its characters.

Some readers will doubtless be put off by Herrin’s Zen-like approach to an urgent and fiery political topic. At times, his insistence on finding echoes of old debates and reflections of the American spirit makes the novel seem incapable of differentiating its issue from others, turning hydraulic fracturing into a generic environmental question-cum-plot-point. And yet, to refuse to treat today’s problems as uniquely urgent is too consistent an ethos in Fractures to truly be a flaw. Rather, blurring contemporary issues against the backdrop of memory is an assertion of the indomitability of the past: its lessons, its mistakes and its tendency to repeat itself in only slightly altered forms.

Andrew Branch teaches French at Columbia University. He is the author of the novel Dark Chatter. 

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