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.

1

[imgcontainer left] [img:haigh1.jpg] [source]

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.

X