Friendswood by Rene Steinke

Friendswood: A Novel BY Rene Steinke. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.
The cover of Friendswood: A Novel

Friendswood, Texas, a small town near the Gulf of Mexico, is well acquainted with the apocalyptic. When Rene Steinke’s novel of the same name opens, a hurricane has just devastated the area, and the shift in the water table has pushed a container of rusty-pink corrosive liquid to the surface from its secret home deep within the ground. “Hurricanes come with the territory, right?” local realtor Hal Holbrook says, trying to downplay the climate to a pair of wary buyers. Hal is less willing to acknowledge that virulent toxic waste is just as much a part of the area’s identity as the catastrophic weather. Surrounded by oil fields, Friendswood is also home to a Superfund site; a 1950s deal with an oil company resulted in the burial and dumping of an unknown number of mysterious chemicals in the fields and gullies of the Rosemont section of town. Years later, when Rosemont resident Lee Knowles first notices the dark sludge bubbling from the ground, she thinks it is a snake:

About a foot away from the knotted root of a tree, she spotted something black and shiny in the grass that was piled up in a coil, and cross-hatched with pink and brown diamonds. She thought it hissed. She moved closer, ready to jump away if it was a copperhead. But when she got near enough, she could see the thing was dead. It was curled there against the first bright spring grass, slick and oily, weird perfect curls. She bent down to look, and then she saw there wasn’t a head. It smelled rank and vaguely of petroleum, and when she put her finger against the slime just at the blackest part, her skin came back red and stinging.

Shortly thereafter it begins: the ghastly birth defects, the red and blue sores, the unexplained liver problems, the illnesses. Lee’s teenage daughter Jess dies of a leukemia-like blood disease. Rosemont is abandoned, its residents scattering across Friendswood and places farther afield, leaving behind chain-link fences and half-demolished homes.

Steinke’s novel uses this environmental collapse as a backdrop for other, more personal, disasters—her characters’ spiritual and emotional environments hurtle toward peak calamity. In Friendswood, where the two religions are evangelical Christianity and high school football, residents quote Scripture in line at the bank, or while collecting donations for the hurricane victims. At Victory Temple, the largest church in town, there’s “a lot of reverence for Satan” and “Pastor Sparks [gives] prophecies of the Apocalypse in a fierce, cheerful voice.”

The four primary characters—Lee and Hal, along with teenage Willa and her friend Dex—are all touched in some way by trauma or loss. Willa has visions of bloodstains and dissolving dresses, of plants that grow fur and begin to walk. After she’s drugged and raped by several members of the high school football team, the visions grow more severe. Marks appear on her skin. She worries she might be seeing signs of the End of Days from the Book of Revelation. Dex is the football team manager, a quiet, easygoing kid who turns violent in the aftermath of the attack on Willa, angry with himself and his inability to have stopped it.

Christianity and corruption blend to alienating effect. Hal tapes Bible verses to his dashboard. He’s a poorly recovering alcoholic and reformed philanderer, “trying like hell to free himself from sin” and desperately seeking the blessings of God. One of those blessings, he is sure, is landing the exclusive listing for the new subdivision Friendswood real-estate magnate Avery Taft is trying to develop near the old Rosemont site. This puts Hal and Lee at odds, as she believes the area is still contaminated, despite being cleared by the EPA. Lee has withdrawn from the community after losing her daughter, and her lack of faith further alienates her from the rest of Friendswood.

Steinke builds up to a denouement both explosive (quite literally: industrial sabotage is involved) and predictable—an unusual feat, in literature at least, though not unsatisfying. Also satisfying is Steinke’s treatment of religion, which she explores and comments on without venturing into the obvious territory of satire—a real accomplishment, given the exaggerated qualities of churchgoing Texas and high school football. Full of off-kilter observations, she’s best when cataloging the eccentric or out-of-place. The contaminated field is planted with surveyor’s flags that “stood out against the grass like bright artificial goldfish”; one of Willa’s recurring visions leaves her shaken, “as if something was pressing open her heart—as if it was only the fake heart shape cut out of paper, and someone was holding it open with two hands, and anything might fall into it now.”

Fans of Steinke’s first novel, The Fires, and the National Book Award nominee Holy Skirts will recognize and appreciate the mood of tranquil oddity she cultivates, as well as her keen appreciation of anger. Lee recognizes her own anger is a problem, “but what the hell was she supposed to do with it? Tame it and put a bow on it and trot it out like a pet?” It's fitting that Lee compares her anger to a pet and Willa's visions most often take the form of animals; Lee’s fury and Willa’s quiet, helpless sadness make an arresting combination, even though the two just barely meet on the page. Hal, on the other hand, thinks and speaks in clichés, which seems trying for those around him, and sometimes tried this reader as well. (One might also wish that Friendswood’s local doctor went by something other than “Doc.”) American letters has a long history of chronicling the secrets and scandals just underneath the wholesome public façade of small-town life, and while Friendswood fits well into that tradition, it might do more to illuminate it. Still, Steinke displays a keen and compelling sense of the uncanny. This portrait of the sludgy, plague-ridden center of Friendswood is strange and ominous—an intense vision of characters navigating a city’s deep-set corruptions.

Ruth Curry is a writer living in Brooklyn and the co-founder of Emily Books.