The news is not always good.
Jennifer Haigh, clearly mining a favorite seam, manages to hit the motherlode again in her new tales of Bakerton, PA. Her 2005 novel, Baker Towers, painted a three-decade portrait of the small mining town, from 1944 into the 1970s, focusing on the lives of its residents, and most particularly, the five siblings of her fictional Novak family. In returning to Bakerton, Haigh brings back several of the characters from her earlier work, completing some unfinished stories of the family, and expanding her scope as well. There are plenty of faces, even beyond those of the Novaks, that will be familiar to readers of the earlier book. In News From Heaven Jennifer Haigh demonstrates once more the immense talent for which she has rightfully come to be known.
She has not been idle in the eight years since she introduced Bakerton, PA to the world. In 2008, The Condition , was released, an excellent a multi-generational family drama set in New England. In 2011, she produced the exquisite Faith, about a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. In that novel and in other work she showed a power that put her at the top level of contemporary fiction writers, and she just keeps on getting better. But, apparently, Haigh had been puttering with Bakerton tales ever since Baker Towers came out.
I didn’t, for a long time, imagine publishing them as a collection. I wrote them one at a time, in between novels or drafts of novels. And after about ten years of this, I realized that they belonged together in a book.
So in a way, despite moving from Pennsylvania to the Boston area, one could say that in News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh returns to Bakerton. But in a very real sense she never left.
This is a book about longing, loneliness, about secrets, about wanting to flee the stifling confines not just of small town life but of responsibility and living with one’s choices. Maybe about pleading with fate. Yet it is also about the pull that our homes can have on our hearts. The stories are filled with yearnings, some met, many not. Disappointment shuffles through these stories. Secrets are revealed, often to dark effect. These are stories about change, in the world and in her characters.
…good fiction always begins with complex, well-developed characters, and to write those characters I have to know where they came from. I imagine them as children, their fears and frustrations, the rooms where they slept at night, and I find it all so interesting that I have to write about it. I have come to accept that — in my hands, anyway — every story becomes a family story.
As with Baker Towers, most of the action in the book takes place in Bakerton, with a few forays beyond, and the great majority of her characters are women. There are ten stories in the collection. All of them will make you feel. Four of the first five look upward, in their titles at least, while the latter five seem to look down. There are moments of awakening, moments of glorious freedom and possibility that shine through this sooty, declining place, lives that find meaning, whether real or faux, whether passing or permanent. But it seems that for most of the inhabitants, whether they remain in Bakerton or have sought greener pastures elsewhere, the news from on high is that they have to get by with what they can and not look for a paradise on earth. That said, Haigh’s writing is heaven-sent, her ability to portray real, breathing people is celestial and her talent for portraying place is rapturous.
It is not necessary to have read Baker Towers in order to appreciate the strength of the writing on display here, but it certainly helps to have done so in order to get the fullest picture of her players.
Beast and Birds opens the collection in the past. Sixteen-year-old Annie Lubicki is engaged to work in the household of an Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish family in the 1930s. The family has a son whose destiny it is to become a scholar. We are given a servant’s eye look at life in NYC as Annie experiences it on her first time away from home. On a weekend while the adults are away, Annie is charged with caring for the young man. He is unwell and cannot accompany his parents on their trip. He and Annie have developed a relationship that is nothing but sweet.
There are many words for what she’d felt as she watched him sleep, many words in many languages, but the one she knows is longing
Did they or didn’t they?
In Something Sweet, an ironic title, Haigh brings back teacher Viola Peale from BT. She is much taken with a student, a boy who has a natural way with girls, is a gifted salesman who also demonstrates a flair for decoration. He offers her a lemon drop. “It’s nice to have something sweet,” he says. Of course he incurs the wrath of those maybe not so smooth. During the summer visit of a young relation Viola is smitten with a hunky second cousin who is very wrong for her–In a trance of longing, Viola sat on the grass, hugging her knees to her chest–and her desire is harshly rewarded. The young student knows he will never be accepted in the town and looks for a way out. The sweetness here is of the bitter variety.
In Broken Star young Regina has a magical month in the summer of 1974, when her cool Aunt Melanie comes to stay with the family for a spell, and provides a wonderful assist during a time of growth and change. Gina thrives with Melanie’s encouragement but still has concerns about life, and her future, a girl born to a farming family, who is not all that interested in the land, a girl who fears getting stuck.
My uncles…were like all the men I knew then, soybean and dairy farmers who spoke rarely and then mainly about the weather. Yet unlikely as it seemed, I accepted that these men had the power to transform. My aunts had been pretty, lively girls—one stubborn, one mischievous, one coquettish, according to my mother—though somehow all three had matured into exactly the same woman: plump, cheerful, adept at pie making and counted cross-stitch, smelling of vanilla and Rose Milk hand lotion. That I would someday become that same woman terrified me. My only greater fear was that nobody would choose me, and I would become nothing.
Years later, after marrying, living abroad and having written a book, Regina learns a tragic secret about her aunt, and the cost of her own separateness.
A Place in the Sun continues the unfinished story of Sandy Novak from BT. Despite his charm, beauty and certain skills, Sandy has never managed to get or stay ahead. He seems always on the run and has a gambling compulsion. Still, he and his sister, Joyce, maintain some sort of a connection, even if that usually means her sending him money. Trying to straighten up he takes a job at a diner in North Hollywood
She had hired him off the street. Bleary, hungover, he’d wandered in for breakfast after an all-night card game. A sign in the window said HELP WANTED. Can you cook? Vera Gold asked.
He looked down at his greasy plate. Better than this? Sure. You bet.
It is not long before Sandy and statuesque, red-headed Vera are an item, to the chagrin of Vera’s much older husband. Of course this complicates Sandy’s relationship with a young Canadian cutie, who is looking for more from him that he is interested in giving.
”That’s where I used to work,” he said, pointing. The familiar sign filled him with an old longing, the looping S with its tall graceful curves
The Sands A PLACE IN THE SUN
“Is that where we’re going?”
For a moment he was tempted. The town had a short memory, and seven years had passed. Still he wouldn’t chance it. He’d been known there, known and recognized. Sandy from the Sands. It wasn’t worth the risk.
And across it all he ponders his family back east, and the odds of life taking a positive turn.
To The Stars looks at the town’s reaction to Sandy’s passing, with particular focus on Joyce, and her feelings about her own choices. Sandy was once a chauffeur to the stars but never managed to become a star himself.
She is thinking not of his death but of that earlier departure, his disappearance like a magic trick, as dizzying and complete. His manic and determined flight from Bakerton, from the family, from her…and yet Joyce could never leave them [her family], run off to California or to Africa, as her younger siblings have done. Freedom is, to her, unimaginable, as exotic as walking on the moon.
Thrift introduces Agnes Lubicki, a nurse who has lived her life in service to others and found herself with no way to have anything for herself. Until a man enters her life, and Agnes gives up everything for him. Is this what she’d been saving for?
In Favorite Son, Mitch Stanek, a studly jock, had been expected to coast to a career in professional sports. But something is amiss when he goes away to college on a full scholarship. We see him, back in Bakerton, married with kids, and out of work when Mine #11 shuts down, putting 900 out of work. Joyce Novak’s daughter, Rebecca, narrates the tale, and has special knowledge about Mitch, that tells us whether he was destined for fame, or not. It is in this story that we get the quote that births the collection’s title: The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.
The Bottom of Things introduces Ray Wojick, 52, back in town for his parents’ 50th anniversary party, with his pregnant second wife. Ray is looking to get to the bottom of things, his ultimate impact on his late brother’s fate, how his father was able to raise him, when he married a woman with a three-year old, how Ray’s first marriage came to be and came to end, his alienation from his children from that marriage, and how to cope once he learns what he needs to know.
Sunny Baker used to be a joyous kid, thus the name, but in What Remains we see what has become of her. When her parents were killed in a plane crash her life took a dark turn, and she never quite recovered. We see her through a series of relationships, each of which add more junk to her property and take a piece more out of what is left of her. The story is paralleled by the town wanting to attract construction of a new prison. Do the math.
Finally, Desiderata closes the book with Joyce Novak mourning the death of her husband, and remembering her dead son, and how he was lost. It also tells the tale of an inspirational teacher and a husband who had married a woman who did not or could not love him enough.