September 17, 2013
The Marcellus Shale formation, rich in natural gas, has the potential to make landowners, gasfield workers and presumably everyone in the region at least a little richer. New York is still studying environmental and health issues that may arise from preparing a well pad, boring a couple of miles into the Earth, redirecting the pipes for a few miles, injecting water, sand and chemicals to fracture ("frack") the shale and forcing the gas up into pipelines and onto the market. The timeframe is often uncertain, but there has already been one payoff and it is not economic or geological but cultural. Tapping the Marcellus Shale has brought forth some solid journalistic work and respectable creative efforts. These include the memoir "The End of Country" by Seamus McGraw and Tom Wilber's book-length study "Under the Surface" (you can listen to both Wilber and McGraw on OFF THE PAGE). Beyond the books and articles there's the play "Frack You" by Laura Cunningham -- which was presented on WSKG-TV -- and a radio play entitled "A Bad Case of the Fracks". Natural gas development and the resistance to it is a theme of Bob White's novel "Hotbed in Tranquility". There's even a rap number called "Think Before You Frack".
The novel "Fractures" by Lamar Herrin is the most ambitious work of literature to arise thus far from the Marcellus. It is the story of one family, the Joyners, who expect to receive many dollars from the gas wells to be drilled on their property, but who also must deal with fractures in their relationships that seem to make every step and gesture hurtful to someone. Frank Joyner is the family patriarch, a restoration architect who has saved and rebuilt many of the fine old buildings in a region that is never named but certainly resembles the Finger Lakes of New York State. Frank is estranged from his wife, who still lives in the local community, and their three children are very different characters: Gerald lives quietly with his family in California, Mickey is a schoolteacher still in the old family apartment and often at loose ends and Jen is the mother of an 11-year old boy, Danny, who is currently being raised by his grandfather in what seems to be a loving and mutually protective relationship. Danny often seems to be the wisest and steadiest of the family.
Prospecting for natural gas runs through the action of "Fractures", and Lamar Herrin's descriptions of the process are among the best that have been written in this well-covered story. In some cases, the "landmen" -- agents of the gas companies who bargain and cajole property owners into signing drilling rights -- have turned into the villians of the piece. (Sometimes justafiably). But Kenny Brewster is a sensitive, intelligent southerner who was hired for his diplomatic skills. He had hands-on experience on the Texas fields.
The drill looked like a small torpedo, its nose a helix of ridges and steeply carved hollows. They kept the pipe hosed and tried to hose the clayey-slick mud off the drilling floor. In the heat of the day they hosed themselves. As the pipe descended, it made a loose clattering din, which, at first, reminded Kenny of the sound his bike had made when the chain came loose from its sprocket and begun to clash with the spokes of the wheel. Then the sound went beyond any boyhood association and became the strangely futile clamor of some elemental transgression -- except that it worked. When the bit hit rock, the whole derrick began to shake, but the bit continued to bore down.
Kenny is sent north to the bucolic, more densely populated Marcellus territory and soon meets Frank Joyner, who he comes to respect and treats with great deference, and Jen, who he falls in love with and soon disregards the wife he left in Texas. Frank signs the lease agreement even though any distribution of earnings hadn't yet been settled. The family conflicts would not be quickly calmed. Meanwhile, Frank and Danny watch the derricks rise as they lean back on a bale of hay, caught between past and future.
Dr. Lamar Herrin is professor emeritus of creative writing and contemporary literature at Cornell. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's and The Paris Review awarded him the Aga Khan fiction prize. "Fractures" is his seventh book. He joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE.
The official publication date for "Fractures" is November 12th. There will be several appearances by Lamar Herrin around that time:
Sat. November 9 at 4:00 PM Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca
Thurs. November 14 at 7:00 PM Barnes & Noble, Vestal
Fri. November 15 at 6:320 PM Riverread Books, Binghamton