By René Steinke

Riverhead Books | 2014 | $27.95 | 350 pages

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Oil and Ennui

I think of Texas as a guilty pleasure, at least when it comes to watching John Ford- style Westerns on late night television, and that often  translates to novels set in Texas, too.

Not that René Steinke’s new novel, Friendswood, bears any overt resemblance to places where cowboys saunter into the saloon with six-shooters blazing, but a reader gets the sense from writers such as Steinke and her most famous predecessor, Larry McMurtry (I’m talking strictly literary Texas), that even today, out there in those vast dry plains where tumbleweed rolls along and towns seem to have lost their reason for being, the law is capricious and honor is a matter of split-second, life-or-death decisions.

Lives look small against the sweeping landscape, so as a writer you have to endow  your characters with big psyches and big attributes like honor and moral courage to make them stand out against the window dressing of ten-gallon hats and big hair and big cars and big swaggering

The wild wild West according to early Hollywood was all about the immutable qualities that make a character noble when a big shot is pointing a gun barrel in his face.  Honor could be an especially lonely—and deadly— state of existence in the lone star state.

In the 1950’s Texas that Larry McMurtry depicted in The Last Picture Show, heroic loneliness gave way to restless ennui. The town —based on the real Archer City, where McMurtry grew up—was dying, the movie theater the only emissary from the world outside and the town couldn’t even support that.

In reality and in two sequels, Texasville and the tellingly titled Duane’s Depressed, the high price of oil saved Archer City and its fictitious counterpart from economic death in the 1950s and 1960s, then the town went bust again. In the fiction version, life seemed to grow ever more pointless as the restless teenagers grew into even more restless adults.

Steinke’s novel has approximately equal parts of both of these sides of Texas. With nice spare prose that nevertheless meanders through  a  fairly weighty 350 pages, she captures a lonely town with the unlikely name of Friendswood, with several desperate residents who collide with one another like SUVs on a throughway, but then move on down divided roads, banged up but undefeated.

It is Texas as a larger-than-life reflection of the Everyman and Everywoman of our times—a party animal in youth, a consumer of things at every age, but otherwise a mostly empty shell who gets into a car every day without ever actually going places.

Steinke mines this territory with skill, yet ultimately her characters never haunted me the way Jacy, Duane and Sonny of The Last Picture Show still do, decades later, or the way John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series,  the gold standard for American lives of no consequence beyond their own sphere, continues to occupy a spot in my thoughts.

It’s too bad that Friendswood  falls just slightly short of being haunting, because Steinke does tell a wonderfully bleak tale that pulls in so much of what’s wrong with life in America in the early 21st century.  She is from Texas but left there, and now lives in the writers’ mecca of Brooklyn.

I don’t know if her old neighbors would like to run her out on a rail if she went back after the publication of this book, but the saddest thing about America, and the thing she depicts so realistically, is that most likely the townsfolk would never reach a consensus about their native daughter because they’d never gather together in one place.

In this small-town America what’s most oppressive isn’t so much local gossip as local indifference; sure, people gossip in Friendswood, but  all that really seems important is their personal pod in which their nuclear family dwells.

The hero-protagonist, Lee, is a woman of honor precisely because after circumstances invade her nuclear family and blow it up she won’t let go of the town’s dirty secret. She is out to see justice done in a place where everyone else would prefer to forget about the slick black gunk that is pictured dripping down like a curtain descending on the book’s cover.

The novel begins with a prologue set in 1993, a summer evening in the development where Lee lives in a nice suburban house with her husband, Jack, and their 12-year-old daughter, Jess. The key word here is development. Their development, not to be confused with neighborhood, is called Rosemont. It’s a pleasant night, to be sure. Jess rides a horse, Lee and Jack even wander over to another family unit’s home, where a party is going on.

Still, the landscape seems to sweep on with no soul. In fact it has something else at its core, something bubbling up from below ground that’s like a stand-in for all that’s toxic in suburbia. The last part of the prologue looks forward from that summer night: “The air did not yet smell of dead lemons. The red and blue sores hadn’t yet appeared on anyone’s neck. The black snakes hadn’t wriggled up from the ground. And [Lee] had no idea that this world was not without an end.”

The story picks up again in 2007. The development is empty now.  There were babies born in the 1990s, a boy with an arm that ended at the elbow and a girl who had no reproductive organs. People developed liver problems. Jess came down with a sore throat that wouldn’t’ go away, then died of leukemia while still in her teens.  Grief, the great destroyer of marriages, has torn Lee and Jack apart.

The story flashes back to when Lee found the oily sludge that she thought was a snake, but it smelled of petroleum and left her skin red and stinging when she touched it. Lee still lives in Friendswood and is now on a crusade, battling the Environmental Protection Agency and a local developer, Avery Taft, to prove the toxins haven’t evaporated.

Ultimately, though, it’s the intersection of people that makes for the most toxicity in literature, and that is where  Friendswood begins to fall short. There are the aforementioned lives that collide, but a kind of old-West style rugged individualism triumphs over poetic tragedy.

There is Hal the sad-sack real estate agent who is barely getting by. Friendswood isn’t an easy place to sell houses, even beyond Rosemont, and Hal  lacks the gift of salesmanly blarney.  He prays for prosperity.  Working for Avery Taft would be the answer to his prayers.  Avery, a quintessential Texan in blue snakeskin boots and pressed jeans (not a complaint, I know these archetypes is plentiful), wants to build a new development about  quarter of a mile from the edge of Rosemont. “And to tell you the truth I’ve got my eye on the old Rosemont property too,” he tells Hal.

There’s a teenaged girl named Willa, the most provocative character of them all and the one you most want to run after and urge, “Get out! Get out” Get out from her Christian fundamentalist family, harness her magical—albeit probably schizophrenic— visions of sequined dresses flying and children reaching out and words appearing on her own skin, and turn it into poetry. She does write poetry, but she doesn’t know what to do with it.

There is Dex, the skinny teenaged boy who lives in a trailer park. He likes Willa but she likes Cully, Hal’s son. Cully is a football star, and anyone who’s ever lived in a small American town will understand the coach’s dilemma when a high school football star skips classes to get drunk and doesn’t show up for practice; the stakes are as high locally as if this were the National Football League.

Cully does worse, in fact. He invites Willa to lunch at another football player’s house, where the afternoon revelry includes a  pal in the group who sells pharmaceuticals, and slips a drug into Willa’s drink. She doesn’t remember what happened, but the rumors around the school fill the gaps: Willa, the kids say, let Cully and no one is sure how many other guys gangbang her. That’s where Willa’s story becomes agonizing— yet ultimately anti- climactic beyond what you’d think would happen when a girl from Christian fundamentalist home is gang raped.

Willa’s mother is so utterly understanding— you have to tell the doctor about it, she tells her, rather than you have to pray the demon out – the reader breathes a sigh of relief for the girl, yet the story begins to grow a bit pale here. It’s as if the religion in Willa’s family is there just for Texas color rather than as the warp and woof of the story.  And therein lies another unexplored tragedy;  the possibility that Willa will find a lonely place for herself in Friendswood and grow up to be just a local crazy lady instead of a tortured poet in Brooklyn.

Cully, on the other hand, just when you most want to see him rot in prison, turns out to score well for complexity of character. We see him start to do penance and think for himself  in spite of the noxious influence of his father sucking up to Avery.  Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say Cully has a collision with Lee that tests his wild-West honor in a very split-second- decision way, along with the fate of the land.

As for Lee and her noble mission, the oil slick feels a bit too much like a substitute for the kind of human bonding that people often manage to do in spite of living in suburban houses.  Sometimes that’s through friendships, or affairs, sometimes  through lewd  thoughts involving another human—there’s that pesky Rabbit Angstrom again, reminding me how painfully and repugnantly deep the thoughts of an ordinary mortal can go, and how well we got to know Rabbit thanks to what today we call  TMI (too much information).

I would have liked to have spent more quality time in the inner chambers of Lee’s psyche.  In what is for the most part a heartbreaking and finely rendered story, Lee is more a product of her mission than a complicated, Texas-sized hero.

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