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Rene Steinke

René Steinke is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Fires and Holy Skirts, which was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. She is the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Steinke lives in Brooklyn.

Blurbs

"Masterfully observed . . . The characters' attempts to grapple with the legacy of this destruction form the tender and harrowing heart of the story. . . . This is a place you live in as you read."

– O, The Oprah Magazine

“Texas is a huge, complicated state, and it's sometimes a difficult one for authors to get right. Not so for Rene Steinke, whose Friendswood does a near-perfect job capturing the feel not just of the titular city but of southeast Texas as a whole. . . . One of the most interesting novels to be set in the Lone Star State in quite a while.”

– NPR, Great Reads of 2014

"A sharp, observant novel about the hard realities of challenging the status quo."

– Kirkus

"The big events that rock this Texas community are nothing compared with what happens behind closed doors."

– Cosmopolitan

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Friendswood

People and How They Live and How They Struggle

04/30/15

Rene Steinke’s latest novel Friendswood will have its paperback release on May 26th. Steinke, a National Book Award finalist for Holy Skirts, offers the beautiful story of a small Texas town that has survived a tragedy, but never fully recovered. A number of families living in the same development lost loved ones to the suspicious emergence of rare cancers. The novel’s prelude offers a look at their idyllic life on the verge of disaster:

It was an evening that would melt into the summer, calm, humid, and expansive. The air did not yet smell of dead lemons. The red and blue sores hadn’t yet appeared on anyone’s neck. The black snakes hadn’t wriggled up from the ground. And she had no idea that this world was not without an end.

After being displaced from their homes, the controversy dies down and the town tries to move on. When bad things happen in Friendswood, Texas the town does its best to keep such things quiet. However, not all of the community’s members can abide the culture of silence and acceptance. Years after the tragedy, difficult ecological, religious, cultural, and economic issues percolate to the surface forcing the town’s residence to face what they would prefer to ignore. It is a silence that comes from many places, fear of course, but also the desire to hold onto the town as it once was; a wish from the community to forever live in a time when life was simple and pure.

This is a big book that deals with big issues, but it does not do so on a global plain. Instead, Friendswood is deeply personal, at times completely isolating. The novel’s depictions of struggle, sadness, perseverance, and loss register on a level only the individual can know. Each character’s failures and success happen on a synaptic level, rather than a town hall stage. Steinke calls on four different perspectives to tell the story: Lee is the reluctant activist looking to stop the devastation she experienced from being visited upon anyone else, Willa and Dex are two teens involved with an unreported assault that is quietly dividing the town, and Hal is a deeply religious real estate broker who wants to bring business back to Friendswood. The narrative breath of this braided novel gives the reader a pluralistic view of unilateral thinking. The differing points of view allow for a greater and more complex story. The different ideologies and hard held beliefs challenge the reader to see with another’s eyes. The result is extremely enlightening and very satisfying.

While each character’s perspective is essential to the whole, Lee’s story is the true north. She has lost her daughter to cancer. The diagnosis coincided with the emergence of strange, snake-like, oily protuberances from the ground. The neighborhood, where Lee’s family lived, has been laid low by the toxic soil from an oil refinery with shoddy disposal practices. Although the plant itself has since closed, it was never proven responsible for the cancer cluster. Lee finds herself struggling against the gentry, but is unwilling to let her daughter’s death remain unexplained. She endeavors to restart her quest for proof and justice.

She dug for another hour. She pitched the shovel into the ground…and threw it behind her. She didn’t’ even worry anymore about what the toxic shit might do to her…when the hole was the size of a small bathtub, she heard Jess’s voice in the sound of digging, Mom, Mom, Mom.

Hal on the behalf of other citizens in Friendswood moves forward with plans to build new homes on the site that is responsible for the cancer causing pollution. Seemingly setting up the good guy and bad guy, the novel has all the trappings of a thriller. Instead a much more powerful exploration of human struggle is revealed. It is one that largely plays out in the mind. These interior struggles, like carcinogens, are largely invisible to the casual observer and just as dangerous. “Hal sat down and just breathed for two minutes. He felt the ache in his heart for whiskey, and said a tired prayer. Help. He checked his voicemail…”

The writing held in Friendswood is astonishing; seeming effortless, in that way that only the most thoroughly practiced and equipped writer can pull off. It is style without its pretense; that rare book that is both literary and accessible. Beyond the gorgeous writing, the character work is exceptional. Steinke alternates from teenage voices and adult voices without losing any gravitas, accessibility, or realism. The novel uses a classic protagonist and antagonist dynamic that feels familiar and comfortable at first, but slowly digs into new and significantly richer material as the fight is clearly being fought within each character. This archetypal struggle revealed in the internal conflicts of the characters brings depth and nuance to each point of view. The complexity and richness of the internal lives makes them empathic and accessible. Even through this pluralistic lens, where an individual’s actions can be taken as either deplorable or laudable, their motivations are never left unexplored or misunderstood. When mapping the dramatic landscape of Friendswood the conflicts between people with differing agendas would be cartography, and what Steinke is doing here is spelunking -- getting deep below the surface and to the core of things. “Dex knew he had an inside self that was still unfamiliar to him, a shadowy thing he glimpsed while driving straight on the highway.”

Yet, it somehow deals with these larger than life issues that can make heroes or cowards of anyone of us. In its most reductive state, this novel deals with the environment verses commerce, religion verse secularism, and the individual verse the society. However, its main preoccupation is people and how they live and how they struggle and how, every day, they are faced with the choice to move forward through life or be swallowed whole.

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