In The Staying Freight, the first story in VOLT, Alan Heathcock’s debut collection, a farmer accidentally drives a tractor over his young son, killing him. Numbed by grief, he leaves his despairing wife and walks off into the forest. From there, Freight requires we suspend our disbelief, while we ask for greater faith in our human ability to do extraordinary and strange things—often quietly. (If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear it…this tone moves through all the stories.) The farmer’s walk becomes a months-long exodus from his old life, his human life. His hair grows, his nails grow, he loses his ability to speak; he becomes feral. Through this transformation, he gives himself over to something greater. He plunges into the unfeeling, amoral subconscious of nature itself.
Hunters find Heathcock’s wild man in a small town miles from his former home, with no thoughts of who he might be. What they find is a shocking specter of a man, only partially of this world. They take him as their own, as a project, a curiosity. His keepers let bar patrons take their best shot at the man, who is mute and invulnerable to physical pain. This violence has absolutely no effect, as if he were a slab of granite with no history and no future, not yet sculpted, or inspired with any identifying spirit. Claimed, more so than claiming an identity, his initial act of escape takes on an air of the supernatural. This thread runs through VOLT’s eight stories: the blurred line between humanity and the natural world—super or otherwise. And it is this that Heathcock uses to skew his morality tales into something else, something ambiguous, beyond right and wrong. His brand of humanity makes no assumptions of superiority; it blends.
In Smoke, a young man helps his father, a veteran of the Korean war, dispose of a body. While driving on a narrow, wilderness road, the two men come head to head with another vehicle. When the other driver won’t yield, the father gets out of his car, walks up to the truck, and in a blind, half-conscious rage, strikes and kills the man with a tire iron. The dutiful son helps his father move the lifeless body to an Indian cave where, together, they cremate it. Then, in a hallucinatory episode—in which Roy Rogers has a cameo—the boy comes to an understanding of God. This young man becomes Pastor Hamby, the spiritual guide for Heathcock’s Krafton, an archetype of a small, American town. Presumably Midwestern, Krafton’s landscape is specific, but not so particular that readers can rule out other regions. It’s this gothic, American moodiness that lends the town the majority of its affect, which is often akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Pastor Hamby is but one of several recurring characters in VOLT’s eight stories, along with Krafton’s sheriff, the middle aged Helen Farraley who takes it upon herself to be a fierce protector of Krafton: its citizens and their ideals. In Peacekeeper, a massive flood rises to cover the town’s houses up to their second and third floors. We see the lengths to which Farraley will go to protect the people of Krafton. She vacillates between quiet acceptance and a near-biblical sense of her civic duties. Heathcock uses Farraley to raise questions of the morality of responsibility, but his stories don’t ask us to judge, only that we bear witness to the struggle.
Heathcock’s sentences encourage re-reading and his pacing can be so gradual that you can almost hear the farmlands moaning under the sun and the corn reaching up towards the sky. His stories move slowly, weighed down with their heavy tension. In these moments, it’s uncomfortable to read for fear of what awaits, what new people you’ll meet, people who are capable of violent acts, beautiful gestures, and self-sacrifice—often all three in equal measure. But even though his work is clean and beautiful there are times when it distracts; there’s almost too much movement in the background, the literary puppet strings pop, the edge of a scaffolding appears. Sometimes, his successful prose seems the result of carefully chosen elements out of a box of favorites: a Carver-esque metaphor, an Edward Hopper painting, a Steinbeck-like presentation of farmers and their connection to the land. And then there’s the almost clichéd violence that lies just under the surface of small town farm folk and their great, stoic pragmatism. Still, in Heathcock’s world, these similarities are less derivation than they are subtext. They have meaning beyond their mere presence, a function of time, place, influence.
Heathcock’s greatest asset is his strong sense of place and a matching ability to render his vision on the page. He can hold an atmosphere like the best of them, suspending and stretching a mood like a foggy mist, and his prose is particular, infused with creepy import, moments of sublime wildness and piercing beauty. All this comes together with brilliance in Heathcock’s story of restless young people who crave escape from their small town existence, streaking through their own story in moments of abandonment and drunken beauty. Fort Apache is pretty damned perfect and gorgeous. There are elements of film—some literal, bits of the story take place in a movie theater—but also in the sweeping nature of the characters’ underlying, epic boredom, their longing for somewhere else, anywhere else. Someplace they can reach before their slow dying dreams have entirely given up the ghost. I think it’s a masterpiece. I really do.
There is much poetry in these eight stories, and an incredible amount of ambition. Heathcock sets a high bar for what good fiction should be. I do wish he’d had more faith in the poetry, let it take the reigns a bit more, so some of these stories could go even further, past the periphery of a spiritual firmament ever slipping away. But maybe that’s just the nature of life, longing for something more from the world, some unnamable, far off thing, but in reaching for it, we fall back at the last possible second. VOLT walks this line like a tightrope; it’s evocative and precarious, leaving readers in a state of thrilling stillness.