by Alan Heathcock
Graywolf Press, 207 pages, $15
Boise writer Alan Heathcock‘s gripping debut short story collection Volt is an intricately crafted examination of a fictional small town called Krafton that could be located anywhere in rural America. If you happened to pass through Krafton, you’d be advised to lock your doors and keep on driving—although on the surface it seems like a sleepy town, Krafton is riven with crime, secrets, terrible accidents, and heartache. Several characters in the book are compelled to help hide a body and several become murderers. The violence is multi-generational—characters recur, and their experience of harrowing troubles in one story doesn’t absolve them from receiving additional misery in another.
Although each story is written in timeless, distilled language, there are subtle clues that peg these stories as occurring at different times between the 1940’s and the present. Many of the characters have returned to Krafton after serving in some twentieth or twenty-first century war, irrevocably changed, and are no longer content to live peacefully in their hometown. But often it’s not war, but something unexplainable that makes these people snap. In the title story, which concludes the collection, the mother of one such character explains: “You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, sucking the teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ’em and they ain’t the same no more.”
Take Helen Farraley—an unmarried woman with no children, who made her living working at Freeley’s General store for ten years until she became Krafton’s “first and only law officer.” Heathcock writes, in “Peacekeeper”: “It’s been a joke that Helen, a middle-aged grocery store manager, had been nominated and then elected, and when protests arose—I thought it’d be a goof to vote for her, didn’t think she’d win—it was [Mayor] Freely who declared civilized democracies stuck by a vote.”
Shortly after Helen becomes the sheriff, a girl named Jocey Dempsy turns up missing. Even though Helen isn’t an experienced detective, she’s a careful observer and diligent investigator. When she figures out what happened to Jocey and discovers who committed the crime, she decides to keep this information from the town and enact her own swift justice.
“Peacekeeper,” which won a National Magazine Award and appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories, is compelling not only for the knotty moral conundrum at its center and the human sympathy that Helen evokes, but also for its innovative structure, which seems to take its cues from film as much as from literature. The story flashes back and forth in time between the days surrounding Jocey’s abduction and a massive flood that occurs the following year, gradually revealing its mystery.
Movie-like structure and references to film occur in several other stories, notably in “Smoke,” in which a teenager named Vernon is woken by his father in the middle of the night and asked to help move the body of the man he killed. As they go about their grim labor, Vernon’s dad explains how he came to kill the stranger he calls “Mr. Augusto” inadvertently, in self-defense during a freak argument.
Exhausted and shocked, Vernon imagines or hallucinates he’s talking to Roy Rogers, who invites him to sing a song. “I ain’t got no voice for singing them dumb songs,” Vernon tells Roy, which riles him: “My songs ain’t dumb, Vernon. You got a problem with my songs, you got a problem with me.” Poor Vernon turns up again later in the story “Lazarus,” as a grown man whose son has died overseas in a desert war.
The story “Fort Apache” is similarly imbued with love for movies. Seventeen-year-old Walt wears a fedora he hopes make him “look a bit like Bogie or Cagney…any of the picture-show toughies.” Walt sneaks into the movie theater with his brother on the night the Krafton bowling alley burns down. Heathcock writes, “Without a conscious moment of sliding, Walt was inside the screen, there on that dusty road behind the battlements, the sun sweltering above and everything of this world gone—the red fabric walls, the stuttering projector, Hep and Georgette, and the whole shitty town.”
Walt longs to escape this “shitty town” and head “out west,” as his older brother Lonnie had promised him they would one day. But Lonnie has a wife and son, and tells Walt, “I ain’t a kid no more.” Still, he’s irresponsible enough to get loaded with Walt and his friends, steal bowling balls from the burnt down alley and use the town as a bowling lane in a scene of spectacular, casual destruction that beautifully captures how these characters’ longing drives them toward recklessness.
One of the strongest stories in Volt is the riveting, novella-length “The Daughter,” whose action takes many surprising turns. It too has a cinematic quality, opening just after an incident of random violence that takes the life of Miriam’s elderly mother. In her grief, Miriam withdraws from her usual active participation in the town, and cuts a maze into her cornfield rather than harvesting the crop, something the townsfolk can neither understand nor accept. Miriam’s charming daughter Evelyn takes time off from nursing school to stay with her mother during this traumatic time. They want to do nothing but stay home, away from the church they regularly attend, and hang out in their corn maze, but no one will leave them alone, which leads to a murder mystery that left me dazzled and rereading the story to track where it took its sharp turns.
The stories in Volt make the reader slide into Heathcock’s world as easily as the moviegoers he depicts enter the films they’re watching. Novelist Dan Chaon and Booklist compared Heathcock’s work to Cormac McCarthy’s, but Heathcock’s stories put me more in mind of the great Flannery O’Connor, sharing her fascination with human oddity and moral failings, her unsentimental examination of small town America, and her gift for mingling violence with black humor.