Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Friendswood.
Two disparate themes permeate Steinke’s novel: environmentalism and date rape. As the town of Friendswood recovers from a disastrous hurricane, Steinke’s focus is on Lee Knowles, whose actions drive the novel towards its inevitable, tragic conclusion. Several years ago, Lee lost Jess, her sixteen-year-old daughter, to cancer, an illness probably caused by the carcinogens that permeated their bucolic Rosemont neighborhood. In the spring of 1996, Lee knew something was wrong. There was a bitter stink in the air, and something slick and oily came up from the ground that smelled rank and vaguely of petroleum.
Recently Lee has proclaimed herself the unofficial guardian of Barnes Field, spending her lonely days filling up empty sterilized jelly jars with dirt from what is left of the site. One night she discovers a giant, filthy, gray vinyl box, the top charred with a bright brown stain. Lee’s stunned reaction is enough to catapult her into a reckoning with local property developer, thin-lipped Avery Taft who wants to build on the abandoned site because he’s convinced the land is safe.
Avery claims his findings are backed up by the EPA, who views it as just “some runoff, such a small concentration of stuff that it can’t hurt anything.” Lee, however, is unconvinced. She tries in vain to get the city council members to investigate the Field again, telling the press what she’s seen about the recent readings of the soil samples. Lee can’t afford a afford a lawsuit and Taft himself is litigious, but she’s determined to do whatever she can to not be “locked inside” her daughter’s death.
Steinke creates a real world saturated with Greek tragedy in a haunting, oil-soaked suburban Texas landscape. While Lee remains raw from her recent loss, Hal, a born-again, recovering alcoholic, desperately tries to sell real estate. At first he seems to be living a contented life with wife Darlene and his son Cully, but he’s recently had a crisis of faith. A misfit in an angst-ridden state of isolation, he’s mired in confusion over what he’s supposed to do. Hal needs to get a house sale; he also needs to “clean his mind” and turn this bad luck around. Neighbors for the past few years with Lee, Hal tries to reassure her that Avery has done due diligence in getting the land tested. But deep down, Hal knows that Avery is just another greedy promoter eager to expand his building project regardless of the environmental consequences. Lee is also fodder for gossip in Willa’s home, her father preoccupied with the notion that Lee has just “gotten stranger” about the old Rosemont site.
Willa herself is troubled; she’s stunted and can’t move on. She is plagued by visions of furry, Machiavellian beasts that seem at first fleshy and then more transparent. Soon Friendswood is buzzing. Everyone wonders what really happened that afternoon when Willa trusted Cully in a house of drinking boys. Willa can’t remember anything. Only fellow schoolmate Dex (the novel’s moral center) can tell her the truth: she shouldn’t have let herself get mixed up with Cully Holbrook in the first place. From one crisis to another, Lee chases the elusive Avery while Dex offers what he can to Willa as the locals cringe. Both Dex and Willa are outcasts of sorts, caught in a cacophony of confusion and confrontation, their lives simultaneously seductive and ugly.
Through Dex and Willa, Steinke provides wonderful glimpses into contemporary teenage suburban life. Her story develops organically, from the ambiguous, haunting nature of Lee’s tragedy to the relationship between Dex and Willa, and also Hal and Cully, whose complicated father/son relationship compels the reader as well. In a tightly fluid plot, the author packs her narrative with lots of digressions built around the personal lives of these major characters and their troubles.
Steinke doesn’t shy away from exposing small-town bigotry or the well-intentioned environmental agencies who are not immune to the profit margin that allows them to function when lax oversight procedures permit. Driving past the gray blocks of strip malls and the long fields of weedy grass, Lee tries to picture her own failure—she hates the ignorant arrogance of the religiously minded with their “promises of immortality.” She’s “held on for so long” that she can no longer bear to let Jess’s death go unclaimed. With the pale sky, the smell of car exhaust, and the “rectangular grays” of the Houston skyline in the distance, Hal also reaches the end of his tether, realizing that perhaps God “just isn’t there.”
In this compelling psychological page-turner that builds in a quintet of voices, Steinke encapsulates us in Lee’s grief as she deals with “a rage which seems worse than a ocean of hidden monsters.” Lee is heading in a dark direction, her anger generating a fine sense of menace and tension. Her dramatic efforts to right an environmental injustice ultimately drives Steinke’s powerful narrative toward its violent, dramatic end.