Volt : Stories

  • By Alan Heathcock
  • Graywolf Press
  • 208 pp.

In this collection, reckless characters battle horrific evils along the path to redemption.

Alan Heathcock’s Volt takes us to a village somewhere in the very rural West – or perhaps Midwest. Folks here drop their pronouns and conjunctions, get lost in cornfields, fry bacon by the slab, trap coons and beavers. This is no criticism. Heathcock’s characters earn our respect and the vernacular reads easily, rarely getting in the way.

The stories dwell on violence and pain, and the best ones are suffused with tension, not just about what awful thing may happen next but whether Helen, or Winslow, or Jorgen will once more take a self-destructive step, put themselves again in danger’s path, or make another move toward madness. When something rustles ominously in the dry cornstalks we know there’s trouble, but Heathcock’s characters dive right in, asking for trouble, seeking it.

These folks get flayed, battered, cut and blistered; the sky over their heads hangs low, and gray; the smells are never pleasant smells; trouble is omnipresent. The poor who live at the fringes of Heathcock’s community are desolate, touched by addiction and murder, and dominated by horrors so predictable they can terrify us before they occur. “Maybe awful things,” one character says, “is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive.”

There’s beauty here, however. Redemption follows punishment, and perseverance – even just hanging on – can mitigate the horrors of a bloody episode.

The first story, “The Staying Freight,” is the best. Farmer Winslow Nettles sets out on a journey riven by guilt, repentant, seeking (perhaps) redemption. Winslow slogs through mile after mile of forests and valleys, overburdened by the responsibility he feels for his role in his son’s death. He goes without protection, finding food where he can, sleeping in the open, becoming wild. His subsequent and often brutal punishments seem self-inflicted and we despair of his ever finding a way through his own peculiar hell. Injured, beaten, put on humiliating display, he carries on, finally finding redemption in a satisfying conclusion.

Another fine story is the suspenseful “Peacekeeper” which introduces us to Sheriff Helen Farraley, “a large woman” who plays a role in several stories in this book.  Sheriff Helen is an anti-lawman, mostly. In this grisly tale she seeks her own brand of gruesome justice and hides essential evidence in a rape and murder case. The plot is suspenseful, unfolding in timeline switchbacks and reminding us how engaging good writing can be, even when we know much of what’s going to happen. The only flaw in this excellent piece is some important questions left hanging at the story’s end.

Other stories are beautifully crafted, yet somewhat less satisfying. The eponymous “Volt” takes us with Sheriff Helen into the most awful, demented, hickish part of Heathcock’s rural world. A man, who has tortured and killed his dog, has himself been murdered. As she intervenes with those involved, Helen is assaulted, her cruiser trashed, yet she lets those most guilty escape, almost disinterestedly. While this story contains much power, and a beautiful evocative description of Helen’s nighttime march alongside cornfields and power lines, we’re left wondering just why we’ve taken this trip with her, and what conclusions we are meant to infer. Her persistent failure to follow the law seems to have no consequences – except for her own sense of hopelessness and – understandably – overwhelming fatigue.

“Smoke” holds our interest. A man seeks his son’s help in disposing of the body of a man the father has – inadvertently? – killed. This story contains the book’s funniest scene, as Roy Rogers appears to the boy in the woods and the boy berates his steely hero about his propensity for breaking into song at all the wrong moments. But the story doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Even weaker are “Fort Apache,” a well-written but trivial tale of drunken adolescents who trash a mysteriously deserted town, without consequences, and “Lazarus,” about the estranged parents of a boy killed in one of America’s recent Middle Eastern wars. This is territory we feel we’ve plowed before.

“Furlough” provides a poignant and engaging dialogue between a furloughed soldier and another boy’s girlfriend, walking through cornfields in the moonlight. There’s a wonderful sense of place and time as, handing the boy’s jacket back and forth against the evening chill, they grow closer to each other, and we wonder increasingly where this will lead. But the story ends with nothing but the now familiar sadistic shenanigans, and the girl simply disappears.

The book’s longest story is “The Daughter.” There are moments of suspense and mystery here as a young boy goes missing in a cornfield maze, and the town searches for him. We learn that the boy’s father has horribly battered his other son, through we’re not sure why, and that the missing boy may have been murdered. A piece of pipe (apparently) is evidence, but it’s not clear what that means and the guilty party, it turns out, is someone who has no reason we can see to be involved at all. Heathcock is trying to tell us something with this story but the facts are too murky to let the plot come clear.

I’ll read more of Heathcock’s stories. His skill at evoking place and mood, his mastery of what “awful things” can do to us, and the humanity and remarkable perseverance of his characters all reveal a serious literary talent. I just wish he’d clear things up more, especially in his stories’ endings.

Phil Harvey’s fiction, which includes a Pushcart Prize nomination, has appeared in magazines and journals such as the MacGuffin, Natural Bridge, Phantasmagoria, and Antietam Review. He also writes poetry and nonfiction.

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