by Alan Heathcock (2011)
Graywolf Press (2011)
208 pp

A few months ago, when I first picked up Alan Heathcock’s debut, a collection of short stories entitled Volt, I wasn’t expecting much. At that point, I had yet to see his name pop up again and again on various literary blogs as excited readers around the internet praised the book. I read the first small section in the first story, “The Staying Freight.” I read it several times before moving on, so powerful I found it, so well done. And when I finished the story, I went completely out of character and immediately started at the beginning and reread it (I typically move on and reread, if at all, down the road somewhere). I thought to myself, there’s an excellent story, and it’s too bad the rest of the collection has to live in its shadow. But then I read the second story, “Smoke,” and thought it superior to the first, again immediately upon finishing going back to the beginning to reread it, something I did once again before moving on to the next story. This is a special, powerful collection of short stories. I wasn’t expecting much, but I think I’ve found one of those literary relationships that lasts for life.

Before moving on, here are those first few paragraphs of “The Staying Freight,” the ones I read several times before finding out what happened next:

Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set 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 palms 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.

In the brief first paragraph, we get a sense of who Winslow is with just a few details. He’s a dependable hard worker, and we know he endures miserable conditions well. But we’re not expecting sudden violence, that seems to have fallen from the sky, that is indirectly presented in the second paragraph — all shown through things Winslow didn’t see. And again the suddenness is shown in the fact that when Winslow looks back his body reacts before his mind has a chance to register that it is his son Rodney: “there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky” — not Rodney, not his boy, not even the boy, but “a boy.” The final paragraph of the opening section ends with a line that I suspect most writers would save for the conclusion to their whole piece.

But this is just the beginning of a story that continues to take us to unexpected places because Winslow, after the funeral, after realizing he’ll always be seen, though with no ill will, as the man who killed his son, runs away from his home when his mourning wife is sleeping in the moonlight: “He had no plan. Just to walk. To settle himself a bit.” When dusk settles on the next day he’s somewhat surprised to find himself still walking away from his home. “Winslow crouched in nightshade, his pocketknife drawn. He figured Sadie had called the neighbors looking for him, possibly called the police, and imagined her working needlepoint and listening for footsteps on the porch. He wept and listened to the woods come to life and didn’t sleep.” The next day, he keeps going. He doesn’t stop, though “[n]ot a day went by he didn’t consider going home. Some days he’d backtrack a mile, sometimes longer, before a quake of anguish turned him away again.”

There is much remaining in this story. When Winslow ends up working at some farm with a broken jaw, unable to speak, looking feral, he finds other ways to escape and to punish himself, a way that turns out to be quite lucrative, as if he cared.

“The Staying Freight” introduces a collection of stories where the characters are in pain and seek some kind of escape or, though they don’t find it likely, some type of forgiveness. The sensitivity to spiritual pain and healing reminded me plenty of Flannery O’Connor. The language took me to Faulkner and McCarthy. That the stories all take place in one fictional town, Krafton, reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. That it is a debut collection I think should find its way into the American canon for its ability to grapple with the scope of the American landscape and American literature made me think frequently of Maile Meloy.

As I mentioned above, I liked the next story “Smoke” even more than I liked “The Staying Freight.” It opens with fifteen year old Vernon being woken up at some early hour by his father, who is standing out the window. Obviously, something is wrong. “His father wore a filthy undershirt, his hand swaddled in a blood-stained rag. A cut sliced the meat of his shoulder, the skin jaggedly sewn with green thread.” It says a lot about the father/son relationship here when Vernon notes every detail but simply does not ask his father what has happened. Rather, he quietly gets ready when his father, offering no explanation, says they have to go take care of something.

The story’s ending takes place in a cave that Vernon thinks looks like a cathedral. The cave even has a natural oculus that lets in the sunshine. But they are in the cave to light a fire, and soon “the oval of blue sky was overcome by the smoke and the cathedral walls now reflected firelight instead of sunshine.” Religious imagery is used throughout, not to preach but rather because that is the heritage of American literature. In the next story, “Peacekeeper,” also brutally fantastic, the town of Krafton is buried in a flood. The story goes back and forth chronologically to a time before the flood when the unlikely sheriff, a woman who used to run a shop, was investigating the disappearance of one of a teenage girl. We move to the flood, when the sheriff is floating above the streets, to the Christmas season before the flood when the sheriff actually covers up the murder and deals with the perpetrator in her own way.

While I found the first three stories to be the best in the collection (I read each of them at least twice before moving on to any of the others), that’s not to say the rest were weak. They aren’t. In the rest, though, we run into the sheriff again, and Vernon comes back into the focus. The collection has its close in the titular story “Volt” where the sheriff has to go find a young man because he’s missed a court date. Searching for him she finds ugly loyalty in a family that has just been torn apart. It’s a great end to a fantastic collection that I’ll keep on the shelf for the rest of my life.

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