The Literature of Cynicism: How Fracking Makes for Great Noir Fiction

schneider-author-photo-color-anyaferringIf you Google the most polluted sites in the United States, the vast majority of them are the direct result of the bygone days of heavy industry: steel, mining, and, of course, oil. The success of these industries through the 19th and 20th centuries made the United States into the economic superpower it is today. On the other hand, when you consider the cost, you realize that the success of the nation has come through physically converting itself into currency, like a man who becomes wealthy by selling his own limbs and organs.

The sort of corruption we’re talking about goes far beyond crooked lobbyists and cooked books. It’s a literal corruption of the land, as seen in the YouTube videos of flammable tap water and deadly sinkholes. It’s also a moral corruption. Consider one North Dakota fracking boomtown where calls for police went from 41 in 2006 to over 7,400 in 2014. Radioactive fracking by-products were found illegally dumped all over this town, and crime got so bad that the main fracking company blamed a pair of toxic spills on “vandals,” which is a little like Exxon blaming a crashed oil tanker on seals.

Of course, this is nothing new. The setting and the particulars have changed, but every rush has had similar effects on both man and nature. You could call this cynicism, and maybe it is. But we suspect most historians are cynics. This is why, when we decided to write a novel set against the Dakota fracking boom, we knew it would have to be a noir. Noir is the literature of cynicism, after all. Think of the protagonist who has been stripped of all his illusions, his heroic qualities inverted and exposed as weaknesses—the inevitable betrayals, the plans that can only end in tragedy.

That sounds like fracking to us. The entire industry is based on assumptions that are, at best, willfully ignorant, and, at worst, cynically destructive. Peak oil is behind us, and yet here we are still squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube, laying down interstate pipelines that will be obsolete before they’re done. How can global warming be real when there’s snow on the ground, CEOs and politicians ask disingenuously, as behind the scenes they divest themselves of their coastal holdings. And yet, there’s a sense, the deeper you look, that there’s a certain inevitability to it.

Our family, by coincidence, owns a farm in Iowa, in the same county where a major proposed fracking pipeline is probably going to run through. While most of our sympathies are with the protestors who are trying to block the pipeline’s construction, we understand why so many landowners signed over their land for a pipeline they probably know is stupid and dangerous. The economy in places like rural Iowa is moribund. (In places like North Dakota, pre-fracking boom, it was simply nonexistent.) This creates an eagerness—or what a less sympathetic person might call desperation—to monetize the land however you can.

Our parents, facing a financially uncertain retirement, have been trying for years to make money off their land somehow. Part of it they rent to a soybean farmer, but the majority of it lies unused. A cousin shoots coyotes on it and sells the hides for $20 apiece, but that’s about it. After we toured a Maryland ginseng farm a few years ago for an article, our father seriously considered trying to cultivate ginseng, going so far as doing soil quality tests. But in the end, he convinced himself that the scheme was doomed to fail. Fungus would kill the plants before they reached maturity, or deer would eat them, or random country forest tramps would steal them. In his head, the whole thing had already played out as a sort of tragicomic Coen brothers-esque noir. And who knows, he may have been right.

When the pipeline people came to the state, it inspired equal parts hope and dread, often in the very same individuals. This was fracking money—real money. We remember our father saying that if the pipeline ruptured, it would spoil the land and water for generations. “But I sure hope the route passes throblack-hills_bookcoverugh our farm,” he said, without a hint of irony. When we wrote BLACK HILLS, we often referred back to this exchange—its intermingled hope and hopelessness, its deeply serious absurdity, its earned cynicism and fatalism. The unasked question there, as it is in much noir, is, “Will things at least get better before they get worse?” We aren’t holding our breath.

By Franklin and Jennifer Schneider, authors of BLACK HILLS