Thursday, March 3, 2011

Alan Heathcock's High-Voltage Debut

The title of Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories practically begs for critical comparisons to electricity; but the fact of the matter is, Volt really does energize and jolt the reader from the very first paragraph to the final lines which linger, sparking and buzzing, long after the last page is turned.

Heathcock worked ten years on these stories and the hard, lonely hours of the solitary writer at his keyboard have paid off as readers now hold one of the year’s best short story collections in their hands.  Volt makes us think, makes us feel, and makes us believe in the power of short fiction once again.

In a tradition stretching from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Heathcock links the stories in Volt through setting and character—the residents of the fictional Krafton.  They exist in an indefinable place and time.  It could be Indiana in the 1950s or it could be Montana in the 2010s, but the characters are, at heart, those folks who live next door to us; or, more precisely, those who live in the mirror.  Heathcock has gone directly to the heart of what makes us tick and breathe in a world thrown into disarray, no matter if it’s the Cold War or the Iraq War in the background.

With a certain Midwestern stoicism, most of Heathcock’s characters are men and women of few words.  In the collection’s opening story, “The Staying Freight,”* Winslow Nettles embarks on a weeks-long cross-country odyssey after he accidentally kills his son and, in a separate incident, causes a train derailment.  Before he departs, however, he leaves a note on the kitchen table for his wife:  Took a walk.  Be back soon.

In fact, Winslow will not be back anytime soon.  He has set off on a sojourn across a rough landscape and, metaphorically, across an equally-scarred soul.  His prolonged descent into a hell of his own making is the kind of punishing, self-imposed exile typical to many of the characters in Volt.  Heathcock’s men and women feel they aren’t worthy—not in the eyes of their Creator, nor even in the judgment of their friends and neighbors in Krafton.  At times, it feels like we're reading The Greatest Hits of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Sin, guilt, regret, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy wrestle like naked, greased angels of God in these pages.

At one point in “The Staying Freight” Winslow contends not with an angel, but with “a scraggly pine rising from the rock” he finds on his flight across the countryside:
Winslow hurled stones at the little tree. Wrung its trunk as if it were a throat. He flailed and throttled the sapling to the ground. Winslow hugged its limbs and tried to weep, but was, at last, dry of tears. Under a pale moon, Winslow knew he no longer belonged to the world of men and would forever roam the woods as a lost son of the civil.
That last sentence in particular is a good example of the heightened language which Heathcock wields like a heavy, sharp sword throughout Volt.  Equal parts Old Testament and Cormac McCarthy, these sweeping, severe pronouncements rise up and smite us in the eyes.  Though they sometimes jar us out of the book by their sheer audacity, they nonetheless work in the overall context of all the stories in the collection.  I mean, you’ve gotta admit it takes a ballsy writer to deliver a sentence like this when describing a father at the limit of his mourning for a dead son: “Then there were no more words, and the anchor whose ship was battered by a yearlong storm broke free from the reef of Vernon’s heart.”  In lesser hands, a sentence like that would make us roll our eyes.  Coming from Heathcock out of the emotional core of his already-amped-up prose, it adds rather than detracts to the centrifugal force of the stories.

Heathcock writes not just from a Biblical lineage, but he comes to us by way of the magical realists as well.  In “The Staying Freight,” after his jaw is shattered in a fight, the grieving Winslow** becomes even more stoic, scribbling words on a notepad and allowing himself to be turned into a sideshow freak with rock-hard muscles which crumple all boxing opponents.  Winslow’s shell of sorrow is so hard that punches thrown at him end in splintered bone.  Underneath that granite exterior, however, is a man who feels terrible about the chain of events he’s set in motion.  “Just can’t move away from myself,” he laments.  The punches are his penance as he turns into “a lockjawed, feral-haired savage.”

Lest you think “The Staying Freight” ends in miserable emotional squalor, let me just say—without giving too much away—there is redemption and the first steps toward forgiveness at the climax of the story.  There is also one of the purest expressions of love from a man who can’t form the right words for his wife:
“I wish I could take my brain and put it inside your head,” Winslow said. “Just for a moment. Then you’d know what all I can’t find how to say.”

Winslow is not alone in his struggles.  In the course of this book, a pastor wrestles with guilt over his son’s combat death in Iraq, a father enlists his son’s help in disposing of a man he’s killed when their trucks come to an impasse on a single-lane road, bored teens vandalize a neighboring town with bowling balls, and Sheriff Helen Farraley conceals the discovery of a murdered girl’s body from fellow citizens who, she thinks, would be devastated by the truth.

Sheriff Farraley is at the core of most of Volt's stories--including what I think is destined to be Heathcock's masterpiece: "Peacekeeper," the brilliantly-told account of how she hides the girl's corpse and metes out her own brand of justice to the killer--an act she calls "the Big Peace."  She's a former grocery-store manager who was nominated to the peacekeeping post on a whim during a town meeting at the First Baptist Church.  When a flood straight out of the Book of Genesis threatens to wash away Krafton, it's Helen who must provide the stable, emotional core of the community, even though she's as spiritually-damaged as the rest of them.
Parked on the quarry's service road, the cruiser growing cold with the motor off, Helen sipped peppermint schnapps and considered the world made of her design. My religion is keeping peace, she thought. It hadn't begun that way, was nothing she'd planned, but now she saw that's how it was. I just ran a grocery, she thought. I don't want this. I ain't the one to make the world right.

Like everyone else in Krafton, Helen is ripped asunder by a torment in which good and evil are written in billboard-sized letters.  With an Old Testament God looming over Krafton’s horizon like an anvil-shaped cloud, it’s safe to say that Heathcock knowingly ventures into Flannery O’Connor territory (minus the barbed humor).  Everything rises and everything converges in these eight stories which interlace like a darker, meatier Winesburg, Ohio.  Many of Heathcock’s characters are trying to make their way through an uncertain world—one woman literally wanders through a cornfield maze of her own design—and if they haven’t fully reached understanding and redemption by the last sentence, they are at least several steps closer.  Sometimes the epiphanies are as simple as this statement from a pastor’s wife: “No matter what you say, or how much you talk, someone isn’t really forgiven until you can stand beside them without wanting to slap them in the face.”  Flannery herself couldn't have said it any better.

Here’s another example of a character working through a spiritual tangle:
Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us, Vernon thought, trudging up the lightless tunnel. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things no more. Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men.  Vernon pushed on toward the light of day. He stepped out onto the ledge and into the heat, and it felt like leaving a theater after the matinee had shown a sad film, the glare of sunshine after the darkness far too real to suffer.
That’s from “Smoke,” a story in which young Vernon helps his father burn the body of a man killed when he refused to give way to Vernon’s father on that one-lane road.  “Once things change they don’t never turn back,” the father tells his son, and that aura of inevitability and permanent sin settles like mist over Krafton throughout Volt.

For all the dark clouds, there are moments of breathtaking beauty in the prose, as in these opening sentences from “Fort Apache”:
The electric sign for the Krafton Bowl and Lounge was a vibrant white square atop a tall post. Set back from the road, the lounge’s roof and all but one wall had collapsed. Smoldering lumber jutted from charred brick. Bowling lanes lay exposed to the night, and in the lane oil lapped tiny spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds.
It takes a bold imagination to summon hummingbirds from the char of a fire.  And Heathcock is nothing if not bold. Later in that same story, there’s this gem of a passage:
“Sometimes I wish I was in the movies,” [Walt] said. “Not to be famous or nothing. I just wish I was made of light. Then nobody’d know me except for what they saw up on that screen. I’d just be light up on the silver screen, and not at all a man.”
When I read sentences like that, I am overwhelmed to such a degree that I have to set the book aside for a moment and walk around the room just to give my brain and my blood enough time to absorb all the perfect things that Heathcock does on the page.

The characters in Volt lead hard lives riven by enough tragedy to fuel a cycle of Shakespeare plays, but Heathcock always leaves enough space for the sun to shine through the cracks of the stories.  Or, in the case of “Lazarus,” through the panes of stained glass as Vernon, now the town's pastor, dispenses spiritual advice to a troubled teen:
Vernon stared up at a window lit in amber, Jesus serving the fish and loaves on a Galilean hillside. “Every day’s a new batch of crosses,” he finally said. “All of us taking our turn.” Vernon watched Dillard until the boy gave him his eyes. “Christ didn’t just die for our sins, son,” Vernon said.  “Christ taught us how to be crucified.  How to go off into the tomb. But then, after a while, that rock rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more.”
When Volt’s characters come out of the tomb, or crawl out of caves which smell of burned corpses, they are washed clean through and through—as are readers when they surface from the depths of these extraordinary stories.

*"The Staying Freight" has one of the strongest openings of a short story I’ve read in a long time.  I posted it HERE, and talked a little about its effect on me, even before I’d read the entirety of Volt.

**A name which, interestingly enough, could be parsed as “Wins Low” or “Win Slow.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Dave, for reminding me just how great this collection of related stories can be. One of my most gripping and exhilarating reading experiences in recent years!