Friendswood by Rene Steinke
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: August 14th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Humor
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Friendswood, Texas is a good, old oil-based community. Rosemont is a small suburb built near a refinery and life is good there, until funny greasy black coils of goo start appearing in people’s yards like fat worms after a rain. Friendswood by René Steinke begins years after the fallout from the leakage of deadly chemicals in the field around which the houses of Rosemont were built. Steinke follows four characters, each on their own path yet connected, whether they worked in oil or not. For Lee, whose fifteen-year-old daughter died of a rare form of cancer, the path runs straight for the heart of the man trying to build houses on top of the polluted field, claiming that the EPA has deemed the land safe. Hal is the formerly drunken, cheating spouse who has now found Jesus and is certain that he can change his luck by being the realtor to represent the new houses for sale. Willa is a fifteen-year-old with a crush on Hal’s football playing son and a propensity to hallucinate freakish animals. Dex’s father works on the rigs and he manages the football team, having neither the interest nor the physique to be a player.
There is the inevitable struggle for each of the characters and Steinke wastes no time in defining who falls where. As Lee battles against the local developer and the apathetic EPA for relief from her grief Hal tries to stop her in an effort to ingratiate himself with the developer and earn the millions he believe Jesus wants him to have. Willa is a quiet, pretty girl, who wants to be liked by the star football player and so goes with him to another player’s house for lunch and wakes up much later that day, alone, undressed and with no memory of the afternoon. Dex is the self-sufficient boy with a crush on Willa. He wants to be a part of the popular crowd but refuses to kowtow to its leaders. He has the self-esteem that she lacks but still cannot completely break free of their high school dynamics.
While it may seem that Friendswood is cutting too broad a swath with such disparate characters and themes—toxic chemicals, corporate greed, small town politics, growing up, rape—it doesn’t read that way at all. Instead, Steinke does such a good job of developing the sense of community that the smallest encounters contribute to the seamless feel of the story. Lee, who struggles daily with the death of her daughter, sees Willa alone at a grown-ups’ party and talking to her is enough for the girl to unburden herself about her fear over what she cannot remember. The only hitch in the narrative is Willa’s hallucinations. They detract from her interior battles with shame and despair. Their meaning or purpose is never made clear Willa’s real experience diminished.
Friendswood takes carefully crafted characters and stories and brings them together in much the same way they could be in life. There is a humanity to each, as they navigate their way through to what they think is right or pay their way from what they’ve done wrong. Steinke leaves the reader with a feeling throughout that what is buried will resurface and will still create change, even if not what is expected/desired. Willa’s rape is as insidious and dangerous to the town as the toxic land, in that how they deal with each will have lasting repercussions.