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.”
“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.