(New York, NY: Riverhead, 2014)
Friendswood, the lyrical new novel by National Book Award Finalist René Steinke, is the kind of 300-plus-page book that devours you in a couple of afternoons. The prose is nimble but sure-footed, the narrative suspenseful, and the characters universally recognizable—regardless of your familiarity with the small-town Texas paradigm of church, high school football, and a stream of background music from such Southern songwriting eminences as Porter Wagoner, George Jones, and Patsy Cline.
Friendswood makes a bold case, if not for religion, than for God. It’s one thing to watch people being blown up on the evening news and feel overwhelmed by civilization’s abject decline, and quite another to turn to our own suffering child—or that of our neighbor—and offer our flesh, or time, or pain, as solace. The book reminds us that we may find God within these acts of empathy, which bind us to our fellow beings; this is the simple but profound premise at the heart of Friendswood.
These are not light matters, but Friendswood is never mired in solemnity. The narrative, suspenseful and engrossing from the first page to the last, tracks the linked experiences of five residents of Friendswood, Texas, a town about midway between Houston and Galveston—and the actual hometown of Steinke,the book’s author. Each of Friendswood’s characters suffers, and strives—more or less effectively—to move out of darkness and back to the light. Here, finding the light entails stepping past the well-meaning community’s sometimes misguided doctrines, and tangibly connecting with its other souls: family, neighbors, friends.
At the root of a disproportionate number of the town’s problems is local real estate mogul, Avery Taft. “God doesn’t smirk on a billboard,” high school student Willa says to her classmate Dex, while the pair discuss The Great Gatsby. Taft, whose own sinister mug surveys the town from a giant roadside sign, doesn’t care that his properties are built atop leaking vats of carcinogens that threaten to poison the entire populace. And if that isn’t enough to convince us of his essential wickedness, he even has a shiny office plaque that proclaims: “I’m no believer, but don’t write that on my tombstone”.
Opposite Taft’s spiritual blankness is Lee, the novel’s emotional core. Her teenage daughter dies as a direct result of Taft’s venality, and Lee makes it her mission to restore justice to the community. Empathy defines her. When she thinks back to the night her child was conceived, she remembers:
The open mouths of crushed figs pressed against the backs of her thighs, and she wanted to give herself over to the humidity and green. It was an odd lust, spreading into her fingertips, the fig trees in their rows; the moon; the dark, fecund air; the moist dirt; the ocean twenty miles away.
Likewise, when she encounters Willa, who the town collectively brands as irresponsible, or worse, after she is raped by members of the high school football team, Lee is immediately empathetic: “Lee owed [Willa] something. They all did.”
Other residents of Friendswood are equally complex. Hal is a recovering alcoholic who frantically pursues the “prosperity” God will surely grant him if he can only “think right” and “pray right”, but he literally throws the Bible at his increasingly remote and troubled son, high school football star, Cully, instead of spending time with the boy. Further in the narrative, when his situation hasn’t improved, Hal’s optimism survives: “There had to be an answer to this. He was a good man. He loved his wife and son. If he prayed, if he was patient, there had to be an answer.” Despite his fervor, prayer does not improve Hal’s life, though connecting with his family does; caring for others provides both the work and the salvation of the soul: “He would learn patience, and teach it to Cully. Every day he’d tend to things, and he’d watch these seeds, these fruits, these branches grow.”
Dex, an average teenager trying to figure out where he fits in, feels a connection with Willa, because when he is with her, “he [feels] the envelope opening again to the inside self.” He is confronted with a moral quandary: should he share what he knows about her rape? What he decides will subtly alter the lives of everyone involved. Though he eventually allows his crush on Willa—who feels friendship for him, but not love—“to go up into the blue”, he nevertheless sets his trepidation aside to publicly come to her defense. “Even if there’d been no discernable difference made to the pattern of things, he’d said what needed to be said.” He does the hard work of setting self-interest aside and remaining attuned to others’ suffering, and is therefore able to arrive at a place of dreamy anticipation for the future: “He sat back to look up at the black sky. The Milky Way wheeled overhead, a neatly arranged arch beyond the leafy trees, all the other stars holed up in the night, not telling yet what they knew.”
The perpetually embattled Willa is subject to visions, apparitions that are initially unsettling but benign, and that later take on a distinctly menacing air. They appear soon after she is raped—in the form of smelly, hairy, horned demons—and are empowered by the town’s attitude that rape, like drunken prom-goers and car wrecks, is an inescapable part of high school, so long as the girls continue to allow it to occur. We first encounter the demons when the high school guidance counselor calls Willa into her office: “We may not know exactly what happened, but there was drunkenness, and when incidents like this one occur, the rumors…” The guidance counselor trails off, and moments later, Willa smells “something rotten in the trash. She opened her eyes, and a shadow slipped out of the corner. She didn’t want a vision.” Willa’s distraught mother, along with their slick pastor, insists that they “just need to pray”, and the family doctor is more concerned with finding out “who did this” than with hearing Willa’s version of events. In the end, an outsized rotting dog that only Willa can see “[makes] it clear, not unkindly, that she should die.” The town’s lack of empathy, incarnated by the demons—which increase in repulsiveness and scale with each appearance—force Willa to believe her life is now worthless. Only a glimpse of an alternate existence beyond Friendswood, along with Willa’s strong connection to the rich inner world evoked by poetry—verses like Emily Dickinson’s “our unfurnished eyes wait” appear on Willa’s wrists as though someone scribbled them there while she slept—gives her any semblance of hope.
Together, these principle characters reveal that—as isolated as suffering makes us feel—even seemingly insignificant actions do not take place inside of a vacuum: our lives are inexorably linked. Friendswood is a rare blend of beautiful, suspenseful, and seemingly artless prose—you may stay up past bedtime to find out how everything turns out—but also of optimism: hope minus any form of proselytization. Like the country singers who are quietly woven throughout the narrative, shrugging off suffering through song, Friendswood offers an unassuming remedy for the troubles we humans always seem to find ourselves in: love thy neighbor. Simple right? Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it. And it’s also one hell of a read.
Jessie Vail Aufiery is the World Literature Editor of The Literary Review
Rene Steinke is the author of three novels: The Fires, Holy Skirts, and Friendswood, and her essays and articles have been published in numerous papers and journals including The New York Times, Vogue, O: the Oprah Magazine, and Bookforum. She received her MFA from the University of Virginia and her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the director of the Creative Writing MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
TLR is proud and honored to have René Steinke as our Editor-at-Large. Congratulations from all of us!