Monday, November 15, 2010

Great Beginnings: "Volt" by Alan Heathcock

Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs laid a fog over the field.  He blinked, could not stop blinking.  There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes.  Tomorrow he'd reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done.  Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be.  This was Winslow Nettles.

Winslow simply didn't see his boy running across the field.  He didn't see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil.  Didn't see Rodney's boot slide off the hitch.

Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief.  The tiller discs hopped.  He whirled to see what he'd plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.

Winslow leapt from the tractor, ran to his son.  With his belt, he cinched a gash in the boy's leg.  He pressed his palm to Rodney's neck.  Blood purled between his fingers.  Winslow cradled his son in his lap and watched the tractor roll on, tilling a fading arc of dust toward the freight rail tracks that marked the northern end of all that was his.

Those are the first lines to "The Staying Freight," the first story in Volt, the first book by Alan Heathcock.  I can't think of a more breath-catching way for a writer to leap out of the starting gate.  These four paragraphs do everything right: they establish setting, character, conflict, and tension in a short space and they do it with confidence.  You don't even see Heathcock's sleight of hand--you're watching him pull the rabbit from the hat while he's fiddling with a silk handkerchief in his pocket.

That first paragraph describes the protagonist with incredible economy.  We learn this is a man of the earth--literally and figuratively, the dirt covering him so completely there is not "a clean part on him."  He is a planner ("Tomorrow he'd reserved for the sowing of winter wheat") and a reliable ag producer ("as sure a thing as a farmer could be").  Heathcock states unequivocably, "This was Winslow Nettles," as if to say, "Here he is, folks, this is all you need to know for right now."

And then, as the next paragraph begins, our hearts sink.  We might even emit a soft groan.  We know what's coming as soon as Heathcock tells us "Winslow simply didn't see his boy."  We already feel the agony and the coming sorrow as the boy, Rodney, climbs onto the back of the tractor, his hands full of food.  We are already grieving for Winslow Nettles when Rodney's foot slips off the hitch.

Notice the subtle symbolism Heathcock employs in the next sentence: Winslow is wiping his eyes with a dirty rag, as if it's the land itself--with its fog of dust--that's preventing him from seeing Rodney in time to save him.  There's the tragedy of that short sentence "The tiller discs hopped" and then there's the confirmation of the tragedy when we, along with Winslow, see the boy sprawled in the field "like something fallen from the sky."

From there, the opening plays out like a movie we've seen before--our imagination fills in the gaps and we are certain the father is quickly moving through the stages of shock, disbelief, fright, anger, anguish, and guilt.  The scene ends with the tractor bouncing off toward the boundaries of all that Winslow owns, even as the one thing he thought he "owned," his son, is dying in his arms.  I think the image that grabbed me the most in this opening section was the sight of that blood purling between Winslow's fingers.  It's horrible and beautiful all at the same time.

And that is probably a good way to describe Heathcock's writing as a whole: his stories present us with scenes of a heightened reality which is often curdled with gruesome images.  In another story in Volt, a father appears to his son in his bedroom wearing "a filthy undershirt, hand swaddled in a blood-stained rag," a cut slices the meat of his shoulder, "the skin jaggedly sewn with green thread."  In other stories, deer attracted by their own reflections crash through the front windows of bars, a dead calf with black tongue sticking out of its mouth and flies hovering over its "vacant opal eyes" is discovered in a field, a missing girl is found hung in a tree--"between her buds of breasts curved a rivulet of dried blood, dripped from where the rope had torn the skin of her neck."  True to the title of this short story collection, Heathcock gives us an electrical jolt at every turn.

Now, I should admit, I've been playing the tease with you here since Volt is not due from Graywolf Press until March 2011.  Call me a buzz-builder, a hype-cranker, a trumpet-blaster.  I'm one of the lucky few to get an advance copy of the book and I've been dipping in and out of it this weekend, getting a taste for what's in store for the rest of you.  I'll have a full review closer to the book's publication date; but for now, you can rest assured, Heathcock is off to a great start.


  1. Always greatly touched by stories about rural people. You describe what happens between writer and reader in this opener beautifully. The tractor continuing across the field is the one detail I didn't anticipate. Thanks.

    Kent Meyers does a good job of this, too. I have an image from one of his stories of a young farmer struck by lightning on a harvester, and it keeps going in circles in the field.

  2. The "boy falling from the sky" has got to be a reference to Auden's "Musee des Beaux-Arts": "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters." It's about the incursion of the unbearably tragic into the perfectly (and agriculturally) ordinary.