“Friendswood,” René Steinke’s third novel, so adeptly enmeshes us in the affairs of the little Texas town of the book’s title that we might live there ourselves. First among the characters whose stories intersect and merge is that of Lee Knowles. It is 2007 and she still mourns the death from leukemia of her 16-year-old daughter and only child, Jess, nine years ago. The disease was clearly the result of the family having lived in Rosewood, a subdivision built over land that began to extrude oily coils of toxic petroleum sludge, the result of illegal dumping. Abandoned and condemned a decade ago, the houses have been razed to their foundations.
Almost incredibly, a dozy EPA has declared land adjacent to this dismal, poisoned site to be safe, and a powerful, coldblooded developer, Avery Taft, is going forward with plans to build houses there. Lee, assiduous collector of soil samples and monitor of birth defects and elevated cancer rates, is doing her best to stop him, but she has been marginalized in the town as a grief-maddened paranoid, an object of pity and a nuisance. The people of Friendswood prefer to believe that all is well in the town: Here as elsewhere, protecting real estate values is what passes for civic virtue.
Interleaved with Lee’s story are those of a number of other characters: Hal — struggling real estate agent, sometime alcoholic and former adulterer — clings, self-laceratingly, to a version of Christianity that links financial success to faith in God. Hoping to get an exclusive on the new development, he makes himself Taft’s creature, attempting to persuade Lee to back down. In one of this novel’s many triumphs of empathy and insight, Steinke shows how a genuinely decent but desperate man can submit to a bully and a cheat, and temporize with his own conscience while, at the same time, suffering an undercurrent of self-loathing.
Meanwhile, Willa, a high school girl, is prey to visions and a disastrous crush on Cully, Hal’s son and the town’s football hero. Her awkward classmate Dex, living with his mother in a trailer park, is her admirer, but is drawn onto the fringes of a criminal sexual assault. Errant judgment, tribulation, hard self-reckoning, persistence and courage bring Lee’s, Hal’s, Willa’s and Dex’s lives into the same orbit, whose trajectory Steinke handles with astonishing command. To a brilliant degree the novel amounts to an anatomy of conscience, a forensic examination of rationalization and the springs of integrity, and all the while it is a fully inhabited tale of one little town.
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963.”