Volt, by Alan Heathcock

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Alan Heathcock’s Krafton is a rural mid-West town in an un-named state. Surrounded by corn fields, the occasional quarry and stubble, the town is big enough to feature some three-story brownstones on its main street. Freely’s Diner and Freely’s General are side-by-side in one (Freely is also the mayor — Krafton is a small town). Sheriff Helen Farraley’s office, including jail cell, is on the second floor; her apartment is on the third.

Heathcock sets all eight of the stories in this debut collection in Krafton. That’s a device that is not uncommon for short story writers — Sherwood Anderson did the same thing back in 1919 with the outstanding Winesburg, Ohio, as Elizabeth Strout did with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge. And of course Alice Munro has staked her claim to a whole corner of south-western Ontario as the setting for many of her short stories.

Krafton is not the only common element in Heathcock’s collection, however. In each of the stories, the central character (occasionally characters, plural) is an “ordinary” person who comes to a sharp curve in the road of life — and does not respond well.

Consider “Peacekeeper”, a story featuring Sheriff Helen, Krafton’s only law officer, whom we meet as she copes with a disastrous flood that has put Krafton under water:

Spring 2008: There were more direct routes to the Odd Fellows Hall, on a dry knob north of town, but Helen Farley could not see below the muddy floodwater, couldn’t risk wrecking the boat on a tree or chimney or telephone pole. Who knew what was just below the surface? The streets of the town were lined with ancient oaks, the leafy tops of which stuck out from the water like massive shrubs. Helen steered the boat through the channel between them. The others in the boat sat silent as they passed their neighbors’ homes, slate-shingled Victorians under water to their second-floor windows. Helen trolled high above the town’s main street, Old Saints Road, and the treetops dropped away as the land sloped into the valley’s low.

The flood isn’t the only abrupt twist to ordinary life in “Peacekeeper”, as the author indicates in the next section. It is a flashback to Christmas Eve, 2007, and Helen (“Her left eye was badly swollen, and she tried to hide it by tilting her cap over her brow”) has arrived at Freely’s Diner in the mid-winter cold and stopped in to say hello before heading upstairs:

“No, no,” the old man said, hustling behind a glass counter. He pulled one of two pies from the dessert case and put the pie in a box. “You coming for Christmas supper? Marilyn said you might.”

Helen studied the front window. Jocey Dempsy’s photo was in all the shopwindows; her middle-school portrait, a ponytail tied with red ribbon, braces, a blemish on her hawk nose. MISSING across the top. REWARD across the bottom. “Don’t know,” Helen said.

Between my summary and the author’s own presaging, you have enough of the set-up to speculate about what happens in the rest of this story. Heathcock keeps his prose straightforward and unemotional, but rest assured that the dark elements hinted at in those two quotes will definitely come into play and what happened around Christmas will return to the world of Krafton in the spring flood.

Sheriff Helen also features in the title story, “Volt”, which opens with her being called to a farmer’s field where there is a dead calf. When she says this is a case for a vet, not a police officer, Moss Strussfeld, the farmer, objects:

The old man wagged his finger. “No vet,” he replied. “Marta say listen, Moss. Three nights I hear. Some messing been in my cows.”

Again, that premonition is only the start of a story’s that becomes increasingly black. Krafton is again experiencing weather issues with a severe storm breaking windows in the main street shops and threatening another flood (“You fetch the animals,” Freely said, his old eyes somber. “I’ll set to building the ark.”)

“Volt” quickly builds tension when Helen gets a phone call from a marshal in the county seat saying he will be coming to Krafton the next day to arrest Jorgen Delmore who has skipped bail in the city on a felony charge and asking for her help:

“Got to hunt him out,” he said. “How’s this look from your end?”

Helen’s jaw tightened. She hadn’t heard Jorgen was home, hadn’t heard any of this. “Those Delmores,” she said, considering how much to tell. “Well, they just ain’t right.”

The marshal grunted. “How well you know the boy?”

“His family’s rough, but he ain’t bad.”

“Hell, he ain’t.”

“Well –“

“Got to bring him in.”

Helen’s cheeks flushed. “Yes, sir.”

The Delmores live in one of a collection of cabins out by the power line that runs past Krafton. When Helen arrives to investigate they are in the middle of a quarrel — when she intervenes, she gets a fist in the face, bloodying her lip and knocking a tooth loose. Helen makes her arrest and takes the boy to the town’s only cell, pitch black because the storm has knocked out the power.

Helen went to school with Jorgen’s mother, Winnie, and later returns for a conversation which eventually turns to a discussion of the boy’s older brother, Harlan, twice sent to state prison for battery and drugs (“Jorgen’s the best of all of us, my opinion”, Winnie says). Winnie also offers an observation that could be applied to the disturbed people who are present in almost every one of the book’s eight stories:

She touched her own cheek, her eyes turned into the window’s light. “You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, suckling the teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ‘em and they ain’t the same no more. You might think a man like Harlan don’t care much what his mama thinks. But I shunned him and he couldn’t never shake it.”

While some of these stories are better than others, they all are of a consistent high quality. The collection came to my attention with a review from Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes. He goes into detail on the volume’s opening story (and arguably the best), “The Staying Freight” — rather than duplicating that here, I’d urge you to check out his review for an example of how Heathcock builds his troubling stories in a very different kind of context.

One final word of advice. If you are motivated to try this collection (and I certainly found it worthwhile), plan on reading a maximum of two stories at a time. Heathcock’s characters are very human in their response to those sharp bends in the road, but that also means they are usually depressing and, sometimes, frankly evil. It is the author’s greatest strength but I’d say that over-exposure in too short a time-frame would make it his greatest weakness as well — the stories would acquire a depressing sameness that is not in any way a fair reflection of their value. I will be very interested in where this debut author heads next.

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14 Responses to “Volt, by Alan Heathcock”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I like the sound of this one. I recently read FAME a collection of short stories–some of which were connected–by Daniel Kehlmann. The book was very entertaining and funny. I really enjoyed the reappearance of some of the characters.

    Anyway–I like the concept of the stories set around the town–although some of the dialogue jars. Did you find this to be so when you read the book, or did you get used to it?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Looking back over the quotes, I didn’t choose very well when it comes to the dialogue. These examples are not really typical (and did work fine for me given who was speaking) — I found most of it pretty realistic.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: very interested to see your Big Blondes review. I really enjoyed it but it’s been a few years since I read it.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I am halfway through and must admit I was thinking about you while reading it — the noir blondes angle seems to fit your interests.

  5. Trevor Says:

    I’m back from vacation, Kevin (vacation always seems to put a halt on most of my online fun). Glad to see you enjoyed this collection. I have been looking into Heathcock and found out this took him 12 years to write. I think that shows, in a good way. I wonder what will be next for him . . .

    I’m also looking forward to your review of Big Blondes. I read my first Echenoz a month or two ago (I’m Gone) and enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to his other work more.

    Speaking of looking forward to . . . I see that you’re about to review Maile Meloy’s Half in Love!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I had not seen that it Volt 12 years to write but I am not surprised. I think that if I was more academically inclined, I would work up an argument that his stories focus on a consistent and renewed over-arching theme (how ordinary individuals react to extraordinary stresses — not well) that is illustrated in very different circumstances.

    I am also trying out a new discipline for short story collections that so far (well, it is only three weeks) is working out well. I keep two volumes on the go, allowing myself a maximum of two stories a day from each. Given all the collections that I have on hand (I am one of those people who gets more excited about buying them than reading them), this should help reduce the backlog. It isn’t that I don’t look forward to them (Meloy’s first collection is a good example), it’s that I’ve never acquired the right discipline to get them into the reading schedule.

    I’d noticed your commenting absence and figured you were either on holiday or tied up on some massive business deal. Glad to hear it was a holiday — were any author locales explored this year?

  7. Trevor Says:

    Before the holiday there was a massive business deal taking all of my time, which made the holiday that much more welcome. This year we met with my wife’s family in Las Vegas. No author locales were explored (are there any Las Vegas authors or books worth exploring?), but we spent plenty of time at the swimming pool with the kids!

    I need to do better with my short story collections too. My problem is that I read a dozen or so short stories in literary journals each week (I’d like to write up about them since they get almost no coverage, but I run out of time), so the collections get neglected in order to balance short stories/journals and novels/novellas. I am trying to find a way to discipline myself better there or to simply write about individual stories in collections rather than wait until the whole collection is completed. So far, I haven’t been able to succeed at either method.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I can understand — family first, business second, blog commenting third. Hard to disagree with the priorities. I remember a good gambling book set in Las Vegas (a city I admit to loathing) but can’t remember the title just now.

    I’m not a literary journal short story reader, so I don’t have that problem. But so many Canadian writers start their careers with short story collections and go on to better work, that I like to read at least some — and the pile does pile up. I will see how this new discipline works (am about to head off for two of the final four of Meloy’s Half in Love and number four of eleven in Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance — as a former Utah resident you should be looking forward to my thoughts on that one). :-)

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Those are my priorities too, and they often interfere. Still, they’re welcome interferences (well, work to an extent but I’m always too aware of how many are without work not to be pleased to have it – my grandfather took unemployment at 64 very hard).

    Volt has been on my radar a little while now and you’ve certainly not quashed my interest here. The darkness and tension appeal.

    Your comments on breaking the collection up are appreciated. Like you (if I recall correctly) I have a tendency to swallow short story collections in one go and it’s often a bad idea. I avoided it with the Meloy’s and I’m glad I did. When (and it is a when) I get this I shall have to make sure I do the same.

    Love the cover.

  10. David Says:

    I just read the final story in this collection this morning and I must say it is one of the best collections I’ve read since I started making an effort to read a story a day at the beginning of the year. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy these or not, but they have a kind of cumulative power and I was really sucked in by Heathcock’s rather dark vision. The long story “The Daughter” I thought was brilliantly done and probably marked the point where he completely won me over.

    The comparisons to McCarthy and Steinbeck seem apt, though his depiction of Krafton also reminded me of – and felt as fully realised as – Holt, Colorado in Kent Haruf’s books. Like Haruf does, I’d love to see Heathcock return again to his town and its inhabitants. I loved the frontier town feel of it: we are told Krafton is an hour’s drive from the city, but it feels like it should be a hard day’s ride, with its almost biblical idea of justice. Helen is like the Sheriff in an old Western film, a badge and an office the only real differences between her and the Delmores of the title story.

    I hope it doesn’t take Heathcock another twelve years to write his next book, but if it does, then these are stories that I’m sure I could return to again and again in the meantime.

  11. leroyhunter Says:

    David’s comment brings your review up again Kevin – I’d totally forgotten you covered this. I was inspired by Trevor’s advocacy to keep watching, month after month, until Heathcock showed up in my book shop. (I could have ordered it online I suppose). Like David, I was engrossed – it’s a fantastic collection. The structuring of Peacekeeper and the sheer tension of Volt were standouts for me, but every piece is worth your time. I hope he keeps writing.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David, leroy: Thanks for bringing Volt back up — a quick scan of the review brought many of the stories firmly back to memory.

    I have another comparison to add now — Larry Watson. I had only read Montana 1948 before reading Heathcock but since have also read White Crosses. That caused me to immediately order all the rest I could find (I forget if it is five or six) which I have carefully set aside — Watson’s Montana is another one of those authorly places that is specail — for rationed reading. I’ll be treating myself to one as soon as Giller season is done — I think Justice, which looks to be linked stories.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Montana 1948 sits right at the top of my TBR pile: my enjoyment of Volt makes it likely I’ll get to it pretty soon.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Leroy: Be prepared to embark on another author excursion (eight books so far, but he is still writing). And Montana 1948 is the first so, like me, you can plan to read him in order. Watson is another Trevor find for me, but he joins that list of overlooked American writers (see John Williams) who turn out to be very special.

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