Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2011. 208 pages. $15.00.
The stories in Alan Heathcock’s debut collection are set in Krafton, a fictional, god-fearing town somewhere in the American West. The inhabitants of Krafton are hard workers, a surprising number of whom have committed or have been accessories to murder—or in the case of “The Staying Freight,” the collection’s masterful first story, men who have accidentally caused a death. In it Winslow Nettles loses his son in a farm accident. Heathcock places this death on the first page of the collection and dispatches it in six lines. Winslow’s life spirals out of control until he is the main event in another town’s freak show: a man with an iron gut that can withstand a punch from anyone. Here’s Heathcock describing the event:
Just after midnight Winslow braced himself against the long oak bar, and a red-nosed man in a VFW cap flailed at his gut. Winslow didn’t budge, didn’t blink. The small crowd chortled and shrieked and Ham cried in Winslow’s ear, “Sixty bucks, lickety-split.”
This scene serves as a remarkable—and dark—metaphor for the path of one man’s grief, wholly original, and breathtaking from start to finish.
As the stories in Volt attest, Krafton’s troubled sheriff, Helen, emerges as the moral nucleus of the town. In “The Peacemaker” she battles with her role as the face of the law. Exhausted and disillusioned, appearing as a secondary character in “The Daughter,” she confides to Miriam that she is “nothing but a broom . . . a damn broken broom.” Helen is an enigmatic character whose actions raise difficult questions that Heathcock leaves unanswered. The collection ends in her perspective, as she shivers under a thin sheet, choosing to act on the spirit of the law, while ignoring the letter:
Helen was by no means devout, but she knew the Bible, knew the story of God drowning the wicked world. As a breeze misted in through the window, she hugged herself in her thin sheet and pondered what she’ll do if this rain keeps on and the people cry their end, the sun choked, the power towers submerged, and God’s thunderous voice pierces the gray dome, charging a volt into that sacred truth behind her eyes.
Krafton’s preacher, Pastor Vernon Hamby, is also wrestling with complicated morality and death. He flits in and out of the collection’s periphery until taking center stage in “Lazarus,” in which he, along with his estranged wife, reads letters from his son, who has died in combat. Vernon’s musings in an earlier story articulate the collection’s greatest preoccupation: the question of God’s presence. “Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us,” Heathcock writes, “trudging up the lightless tunnel. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things anymore. Maybe awful things are all God’s got to tell us he’s alive.” Over and over, the inhabitants of Krafton look for God and, not finding Him, cheer themselves in everyday resilience.
Though the stories in Volt are similar in their earnest tone, Heathcock strikes different notes in the shorter stories here. In the quiet, disarming “Furlough,” town dolt Jorgen leads pretty Mary Ellen on a walk with a surprising end. Heathcock subtly places clue upon clue in the forest and fields through which this seemingly innocuous walk passes. “Furlough” ends before we know what will befall Mary Ellen, hinting at a brutality that seems to simmer underneath the surface of each story.
The reader should not come to this collection seeking easy happiness. Heathcock traverses the unapologetic internal and external terrain of Cormac McCarthy. He employs surprising word choices that turn his long sentences in unexpected ways like McCarthy does, yet Heathcock maintains his own timbre. Consider how he introduces two of Krafton’s minor characters in “The Staying Freight”: “An old man in an orange parka, Marshall Traverson, stood beneath the diner’s canopy and opened an umbrella over his wife, Leta.” The discovery of image moves this way: from the idea of an old man to the idea of an old man in an orange parka; the image next hovers on the old man in the orange parka as he is named, then follows the motion as he opens an umbrella, then moves down as we discover another figure, his wife, as she is named.
In “The Peacekeeper” Heathcock reveals Helen’s small landscape in a similar way as she slowly drives through snow-covered Krafton: “Christmas Eve, 2007,” Heathcock writes, “She followed at a safe distance, as children on inner tubes towed behind a pickup truck made wide tracks in the road’s new snow.” Heathcock’s language performs multi-layered work: clipped in syntax, showing us the care of Helen’s character through action, while laying down Krafton’s geography and character.
Volt is a linked story collection executed well. The connection among characters is organic, with no greater effort required than the occasional flipping back of pages to remember who is who. Heathcock’s economy, confidence and stark style herald an interesting new voice that promises to take the short form and rough it up. Too many writers have been careless with the short story in recent memory: using it to tell overly clever smart boy/girl monologues, or to brag in lit-babble about banging Eastern European girls. We are living in a world where writers, in the midst of the storm (dwindling readers, the looming paperless world), must climb the mast and scream: Is this all you’ve got, storm? Recent books like Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and now Heathcock’s Volt assure readers there are still storm-screamers out there, demanding to be heard above the squall.