Jenny had a stomachache. That’s all I knew about it for a while. I remember it as starting over spring break of our freshman year in college, but I’m not sure, and I don’t want to call her family to check. Her dad’s smile is still like a wince, even a decade later. Jenny had a rare stomach cancer, and her doctors could have kept trying experimental therapies, but after a year or so she asked them to stop. “I just don’t want any more pain,” she said. She waved her hand and looked away, brown eyes big. “Every time I think I’ve felt every kind of pain, they find a new one.”
We were sitting at her parents’ house when she said that, and I couldn’t help but catalog the kinds of pain I knew: a burn; a needle prick; incision; the pain of very cold; the pain of ache; of spasm. I didn’t know very many pains, it turned out.
Good fiction can feel like a catalog of pains. Friendswood: A Novel certainly does. It’s the third novel by René Steinke, and it chronicles intersecting lives in the titular small town, a real place southeast of Houston, and real events that took place there in the 1980s and ’90s, while Jenny and I were growing up one town over, in Pearland.
From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, several refineries buried petrochemical waste in unlined pits on the grounds of the Brio Refinery in Friendswood. Developers built a subdivision, Southbend, adjacent to the site in the 1970s, and residents soon began reporting miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and central nervous system and upper respiratory problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated and determined that the air and groundwater at the pits were indeed contaminated—so badly, in fact, that the area was declared a Superfund site in 1984. Even so, the EPA maintained that the site posed no risk to Southbend residents. Still, families fled, leaving the neighborhood a ghost town. In 1992, Southbend’s developer and six chemical companies, including Monsanto, paid $207.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by residents, though the companies never admitted wrongdoing. Southbend was finally razed.
Jenny was young and otherwise healthy, so—rightly or wrongly—when I heard that her cancer was extremely rare, I thought, Brio.
Brio came off the Superfund list in 2006. Friendswood: A Novel takes all that history, renames Southbend “Rosemont,” and opens in 2007, when the land has been remediated and a local developer wants to build there anew. That prospect means different things to different people—a pile of money, the will of God, or the return of a monster—and over the course of about a year, the builder’s progress winds four families onto a single spool until their lives creak with stress, ready to snap. It’s a robust book that speeds by, satisfyingly written and helped along by a clever structural device.
Friendswood’s chapters toggle among the perspectives of several characters, always remaining in the third-person narrative mode. There’s Lee, a grieving mother and former resident of Rosemont, obsessed with proving that the land that gave her young daughter leukemia is still dangerous; Hal, a pitiful real estate agent fighting alcoholism and despair as his son drifts away from him; Willa, a quietly hallucinating teenage poet punished by her community for being drugged and raped; and Dex, a young man standing at a crossroads between popularity and responsibility, deciding what kind of person he wants to be. The rotating point of view is propulsive, providing emotional cliffhangers and also expanding readers’ loyalties. Each chapter wrenches the reader from one character’s experience to another’s, so we witness their collisions from multiple angles, unable to mislay anyone’s humanity for even a second—unable to forget, for example, that Lee’s gain is almost always Hal’s loss.
This fulsome humanity is one of Friendswood’s strengths, but it’s also the source of Steinke’s only pulled punch. The book has two real villains: the pill-pushing teen who orchestrates Willa’s rape, and the mustache-twisting developer who, besides hiding the land’s persistent toxicity, exploits and humiliates Hal. Readers never have to spend any time inside the heads of these characters, whose humanity would be much harder to render than that of a struggling alcoholic or a bereaved mother. Friendswood’s main characters are flawed, but they never hurt anyone deliberately. The one character who both commits a great wrong and has his own voice—Cully, Hal’s football-star son—does so only once, briefly, and at his moment of redemption.
Alternating perspectives also diversify Friendswood’s tone, letting Steinke exhibit the lyrical skills that made her last book, Holy Skirts, a finalist for the National Book Award. The setting is objectively dull, at least to those of us who grew up there—humid, flat, suburban—but, true to life, Friendswood’s characters experience it richly.
Inside Lee’s head, time slurs. Half her waking life is spent remembering, which provides most of the book’s exposition and breaks up the slow churn of the present. When Lee sneaks into fenced-off Rosemont to take soil samples, she sees not only what’s there—an abandoned neighborhood being reclaimed by nature—but also her daughter Jess as a toddler in the yard, and as a young teen running barefoot through the field. To her, Jess is always alive, and dying, and dead, all at once.
Willa, the young poet, sees visions too, but hers are more literal. Two beasts she names Lamb and Dog appear to her when she is under stress, such as in the sterility of a gynecologist’s office, injecting fantastic imagery into her droning life. “Below the table,” Steinke writes, “near the floor, something emerged from the white, its horns short and conical, the face a lamb’s. Another one. When it opened its mouth, maggots crawled around the tiny body of a dead mouse: its paws folded together, its tail hung stiffly over the tongue.” This is poetry experienced by the reader as it is by the character: arresting, intrusive, lyrical and gross. Willa bears it like she bears everything—as quietly as possible, because she has no choice.
Hal, the real estate agent, perceives bad luck and doubt as the devil’s work; he believes that if he just prays correctly, prosperity will rain down on him. He’s the least sympathetic of Friendswood’s leads, seeing the world as a buffet of things he can’t have: alcohol, money, young women, peace of mind. If Lee’s pain is that of a severed limb, and Willa’s mimics death by constriction, Hal’s is an ever-gnawing hunger.
Not that this litany of suffering works against the book. Steinke is, in the end, kind to her readers, both in the making of a world worth visiting and in treating its inhabitants gently. Those of us who once lived in that world, or very near it, may prefer the way things turn out in Friendswood: A Novel to the way they turn out in Friendswood the town. The latest EPA report found that the toxic plume under Brio has migrated 300 feet, approaching a drinking-water well that—local officials insist—is rarely used.