In the mood for a little American Gothic? Alan Heathcock’s got it. VOLT is a collection of linked short stories charting the history of an isolated, rural community located in an unidentified region. On the surface Krafton is your average small town; there are probably hundreds just like it all across America. But behind closed doors people are dying of unnatural causes, secrets are carefully protected and moral ambiguities abound. The day-to-day lives of Krafton’s citizens are filled with violence and pathos.
If you’re looking for them: Faulkner & McCarthy would be the obvious comparisons to the book Alan Heathcock has created. But Toni Morrison is here, too. (“The Daughter”, in particular, reminds me a lot of Paradise). And Tennessee Williams’ influence can be heard in the dialogue…maybe even a little Steinbeck? Heathcock skips around the 20th century – not only in whom he emulates, but in when he sets his stories. Sometimes the only clue to which decade we’ve landed in is the current war the young men are coming home from. Or not coming home from.
My favorite story is “Peacekeeper”. I kept thinking of William Burroughs’ and the “cut-up technique” he used to write Naked Lunch. Heathcock divides the story into sections, each section headed with a date. It’s all a jumble, moving back and forth between events that take place in December of 2007 and the Spring of 2008. The main character, the peacekeeper of the title, is Krafton’s overworked sheriff Helen Farraley. In the Winter sections she searches for a missing girl. In the Spring there is a flood. The cyclical nature is an appropriate bit of symbolism – the snow that covers the town in Winter melts to become the water that floods it in the Spring. The events of one season have repercussions in the next. The seasons/weather mirrors Helen’s journey. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that without ruining it.
Helen brought in the oars and the boat glided. Blue sparks fell (from a Roman candle) directly above her. A flashlight beam waggled inside the house. Looters. She drew her pistol and switched on the boat’s spotlight. Inside the room a large long-haired man in black waders spun around. The spotlight threw his shadow on the back wall, and when he shielded his eyes the shadow took the appearance of a hunchback, then grew larger as he ran to the window. He clanged out into the bass boat, the hull rocking and sliding away from the house.
“Danny!” the man screamed, furiously yanking the motor’s cord.
“Stay where you’re at!” Helen yelled.
A candle shot whistled low overhead. Helen ducked, trained the spotlight on the roof. Danny toed the gutter, the wand aimed down at her. She spun off the bench and covered her head. A shot hissed into the water beside the boat.
“This is the police!” Helen yelled.
The other boat’s outboard turned over and raised an octave speeding away. Then another pop, high overhead, and Helen looked to the sky. Golden sparks rained down. Held in an eddy, her boat slowly turning, red sparks fell, and moments later the sky bled green. Then the candle was done and Danny gazed into the whitecaps thrashing the house. He teetered, raised his arms. He leapt from the roof, his legs scissoring as he hit the water.
The writing in VOLT contains powerful and cinematic imagery – a perfect example is the passage above. The author creates a moment of stillness, putting the reader in the revolving boat with Helen staring at the sky. And then Danny hits water and we all snap out of it. Heathcock has a knack for dramatic timing and employs it often to good effect. Close readers won’t be particularly surprised to learn that he’s a huge film buff. Or that he has read up on method acting.*
Like in method acting it’s often a subtle, almost negligent, gesture or a throwaway line that carries the weight of a story. In “Smoke” the gravity of what has occurred – the violent murder of a man – is brought home by the father’s insistence on always respectfully referring to the stranger whom he has brutally beaten to death as Mr. Augusto. There’s psychological implications there to explore. Another line, at the end of “Fort Apache”, had me flipping back to the beginning of that story: “…Put a black boy in that lounge, or one of them Jews, and see how it goes. Don’t care what Lonnie says. Burn a thousand bowling alleys, burn up the whole goddam world, ain’t nothing gonna change”. I realized that we were never told if anyone had been harmed in the fire, or how it started. And though I know it could mean absolutely nothing – that I’m reading too much into it – the possibilities trouble me all the same. Enough to read the story again, searching for anything I might have missed. Alan Heathcock knows how to engage his readers. He feeds their curiosity.
I could keep going on about VOLT for hours. Murder, arson, betrayal, abandonment, destruction of property – it’s all there. But there’s also a flip side. In the title story Helen has to arrest Jorgen Delmore (who’s also the central character in “Furlough”). She meets with Winnie, the Delmore family matriarch. The two women had gone to school together and “run in the same circles”.
Winnie’s face had gone fuller through the cheeks, but her blue eyes, her snaggled smile, were just as Helen remembered.
“How long’s it been?” Winnie asked.
“Too long,” Helen said, and meant it.
Imagine a small, tight- knit community where everyone knows each other and, at the same time, doesn’t know each other. Every family has a story. Every person has a secret. No one is innocent. No one gets out unscathed. That’s life in Krafton… mostly, though, that’s just life. Alan Heathcock has built a world with complexities and contradictions enough to occupy him for years to come. And that, dear readers, is very good news for the rest of us.
VOLT by Alan Heathcock
Publisher: Graywolf Press, Minneapolis (2011).
ISBN: 978 1 55597 577 7
*As I mentioned in my last post, there’s a great Author/Reader Discussion of VOLT going on at The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) on GoodReads for the month of November. This tidbit of information is shamelessly lifted from Alan’s comments on that forum. I strongly encourage you to go there to learn more.