Review: Jennifer Haigh’s ‘News from Heaven’

For this collection of stories, author Jennifer Haigh returns to rural Pennsylvania to explore the lives of characters connected through a common geographic setting and the gaps of silence.

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The difference between a novel and a short-story cycle mirrors the difference between urban and rural life.  

Novels are plot-based, moving from point to point, following the particulars of one story.  The plot is in order, and the story makes sense.  As with city-life, novels are busy and populated, moving toward a single end.  

Story cycles are quieter, stranger.  Instead of one continuing plot, stories sit next to each other like songs on an album, related but independent of one another.  Characters are introduced and then disappear, remaining just outside the edges of the book.  Entire plots melt into the background, giving other stories equal time.  Most of the action happens in the space between the stories.  The reader is invited to fill in the blank spots, almost like the town-gossip.  Story-cycles can span generations, sometimes centuries, allowing the readers, like so many rural families, to develop long memories and become slow to forgive.

Of course, overgeneralization does no favors to any part of America or any literature.  Novels have been capturing rural life since Don Quixote, and while story-cycles are a newer medium, two of the most successful in recent memory (Drown by Junot Diaz and A Visit from the Goonsquad by Jennifer Egan) unpack the lives of city dwellers in New York and New Jersey.  Still, it’s tempting to think of story-cycles as rural because the co-star of every story-cycle is downtime, the space between the stories.  If it didn’t exist, these would be chapters.  So by their nature, time and the untold take a starring role in story-cycles.  So much of rural life is about the open spaces, the time apart from time, that it’s hard not to feel affinity with that mode of storytelling.

Rural America seeps through Jennifer Haigh’s story-cycle News From Heaven even when, as in the opening story, the action takes place in one of the most urban settings in the world.  The first story, “Beast or Bird,” follows Annie Lubicki, a 16-year-old from Bakerton, Pennsylvania, who works as a serving girl for a Hasidic family in Manhattan. The Little-Girl-Lost in a strange, unforgiving culture is a difficult story to tell well.  In the wrong-hands, Annie can be reduced to a series of circumstances rather than a character.  Here, however, Annie comes across as a genuine and specific character rather than a type.  One of our first images of her is her struggling to find her way around New York.  “At home in Pennsylvania she could find her way through a forest at night,” we are told, because she can use natural landmarks—how water flows downhill and the sun moves from east to west—but she is left rudderless in the pre-explored city.  “City streets had their own order—surely they did—but to Annie the patterns were invisible.”

Jennifer Haigh grew up in the western Pennsylvania coal town of of Barnesboro. Her 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers was also set in rural Pennsylvania.
 It’s a telling detail, not only because it accurately reflects the chasm of difference between country sense of direction and city sense of direction.  It also illustrates her idea of the world—surely some order must govern all things, even if it seems arbitrary and unnatural.  Annie not only doesn’t understand the order of New York City, but she also doesn’t understand the order of the Nudelmans, the family she works for.  Why would this family have two ovens—one for meat and one for everything else—and two sinks—one for dishes that touch meat and one for everything else?  “If Mrs. Nudelman were poor, her madness would be simpler,” Annie thinks.  But she is not poor, so there must be some order.  It’s simply one she can’t see yet.  This story is set just before the Second World War, and the reader is invited to draw her own conclusions about having faith in a stranger’s sense of order.

After the opening story, the action shifts to Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a functioning coal town—back when they made such things—that feels dilapidated even during coal’s heyday. Annie disappears, and in her place are a host of other characters, some reappearing, some only in our purview briefly.  

Though the book is about a small town, it doesn’t feel isolated or under-populated.  We see the changes unfolding in the rest of the world—through the cars people drive, the language they use, and the dreams they chase—and we understand Bakerton’s role in America.  More importantly, the characters don’t feel like symbols or products of their place, but fleshy, flawed people who can surprise and challenge the reader.  In almost every story, the characters run against expectation. In “A Place In The Sun,” we meet Sandy, a gambling addict hurtling from one bad decision to the next.  The story follows him through the expected highs and lows of such a story, but it turns in the end.  Sandy makes a sacrifice that seems sincere and self-serving at the same time.  It feels admirable and simultaneously the wrong choice.  Which is to say, it feels exactly the way a desperate addict would behave.  

There’s a similar feel at the end of “Thrift,” where an elderly, upstanding nurse sacrifices her upbringing and her family status to live in a trailer with a shot at love with a young man.  It doesn’t feel triumphant or tragic.  The situations are never resolved or judged for us.  Instead, they hang in the atmosphere and in our memory, as we move from one story to the next, like our neighbors.

The choices aren’t easy for these characters, and sometimes they find out too late that the choices never actually existed.  “Favorite Son” follows Mitch Stanek, football star and town hero.  Bakerton loves him more than he loves himself, and they pin their hopes on him.  Mitch receives a football scholarship, which he abandons suddenly.  It’s not enough that he’s harboring secrets; it’s that he’s harboring shame.  It’s the other side of small-town adoration—the locals love you but they never forget you, and if you give them reason, they never forgive you.  Mitch Stanek isn’t a likable character exactly, but it’s hard not to feel the weight around him as his secret is revealed.

There may only be a tenuous connection between the stories in News From Heaven, but they feel linked by more than just the setting and recurring characters.  They feel joined by their connection to rural America.  Jennifer Haigh has given volume to the smaller voices that are too often ignored by literature.  By creating genuine characters to populate Bakerton, Haigh shows us what we’re missing in the space between stories.

 

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