Monday, November 1, 2010

Get a daily dose of Alan Heathcock this week

Alan Heathcock has a short story being doled out in daily increments at 5 Chapters this week, and--judging by the first installment--you are well advised to stop there each day.  "The Founding" is a story about a band of pioneers arriving in a new world.  It's told in broad strokes--Heathcock will leap forward a month in the space of a single sentence--and, as with many short stories, your undivided attention is needed to get through some of those epic passages.  But so far, I really like "The Founding" which is filled with wonderful sentences like this one: "The women frolicked in the surf; even Madaline Huffington, a stout humorless woman, stripped to her undergarments and let the waves carry her woodlike to the beach."  Another aspect of the story I appreciated was the fact that we're not told where these voyagers are, or even when.  For all we know, this could be a post-apocalyptic tale of Darwinian survival.  "The Founding" intrigues and tantalizes me enough to tune in tomorrow...and the tomorrow after that.

If you aren't already familiar with 5 Chapters, now is a good time to shake the site's hand.  Each week, they publish a story in five parts.  It's the perfect complement to the daily commute, or those 15 minutes of slack time at the office.  If you'd like to get 5 Chapters in your inbox each day, send an e-mail to

I was especially excited to see Heathcock's name pop into my inbox this morning because his short story collection VOLT, coming from Graywolf Press in March, is one of the books I'm most looking forward this Spring.  Saliva has been running down my chin ever since I first heard of it.  Here's the publisher's blurb:
       A blistering new collection of stories from an exhilarating new voice.
       One man kills another after neither will move his pickup truck from the road.  A female sheriff in a flooded town attempts to cover up a murder.  When a farmer harvesting a field accidentally runs over his son, his grief sets him off walking, mile after mile.  A band of teens bent on destruction runs amok in a deserted town at night.  As these men and women lash out at the inscrutable churn of the world around them, they find a grim measure of peace in their solitude.
       Throughout VOLT, Alan Heathcock’s stark realism is leavened by a lyric energy that matches the brutality of the surface.  And as you move through the wind-lashed landscape of these stories, faint signs of hope appear underfoot.  In VOLT, the work of a writer who’s hell-bent on wrenching out whatever beauty this savage world has to offer, Heathcock’s tales of lives set afire light up the sky like signal flares touched off in a moment of desperation.
A bit over-the-top?  Sure, but I've read a few pieces of Heathcock's fiction and I'm pretty certain his stories will be a lot more restrained.  I like this blurb from Dan Chaon (You Remind Me of Me), which more accurately sums up the Idaho writer's talent:
“The stories in VOLT are intense, suspenseful, and utterly compelling.  Heathcock writes about violence and bad luck and bad choices with a cool, grim eye that recalls Cormac McCarthy, yet he also approaches the hard lives of his stoic Westerners with great empathy and compassion and heart–a kind of miraculous combination.”
That's exactly what's going on in "The Founding."  What starts on an exhilarating, joyous note (everyone dances when they catch sight of land after a month at sea) soon turns into a grim catalogue of bad luck.  Here's how the story begins:
Upon the third call of land, Antonia rushed with the others up the dark hull stairs and into the red dying light.  On the deck, Vicar Hamby played his melodeon, little Bon Smithers on pennywhistle, jigging and clicking his heels.  Everyone danced and sang.  Antonia twirled in Seth Worthington’s arms, then ran to the ship’s rail.  The sun rode the cliffs, the bay breaking languid waves on a shore fringed with pink foam.  A month on the ocean, weeks without land.  Men sang hallelujahs from the rigging, sliding down cordage and dropping like spiders to the deck.  Antonia’s face felt feverish.  Her cheeks ached from smiling.  Old Mary skipped over, bent under her shawl, and Antonia took her frail spotted hands and they spun, Mary toothless and laughing, her eyes bright as a babe’s and glinting the pale rose of the setting sun.

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