by Alan Heathcock

Graywolf Press
2011, Paperback
First collection

Awards: Peacekeeper,  winner of the national magazine award.

"Winslow simply didn't see his boy running across the field.  He didn't see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil.  Didn't see Rodney's boot slide off the hitch. Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief.  The tiller discs hopped.  He whirled to see what he'd plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky."

Reviewed by A. J. Kirby

It’s impossible not to reach into the pun drawer when reviewing Volt, Alan Heathcock’s new collection of short fiction from Graywolf Press. I found myself unable to resist writing that his prose positively crackles with energy, or that a current of literary brilliance flows through the stories, or that there is a power here, an electricity, which almost bursts off the page. But it would be unfair to settle for the easy pun, to resort to journalistic shorthand, when Heathcock so clearly doesn’t. Although his stories owe a great deal to the canon of American literature - to Cormac McCarthy, to John Steinbeck, to Flannery O’Connor, and to Stephen King - Heathcock makes them unique at the same time. He tackles the big themes which have always obsessed American writers, those of freedom, faith, land, belonging, and law and morality, in stories which reflect the largeness of the landscape. He writes how small people often feel themselves to be within such a large space and yet he does so by creating an America which is undoubtedly his. His stories contain great yawning prairies of meaning, his characters great chasms of yearning.

Often, Heathcock’s people seem beaten down. Virtually every story contains a person "trolling" between one place and another. Or else they are dwarfed by head-high crops in the fields, or else the landscape becomes written upon them. In the opening story, The Staying Freight, a shocking tale in which a father accidentally kills his son in a farming accident, this becomes literally true:
Weeks he wandered, awake day and night, eating berries and cress, beetles and worms, an occasional fish, a groundhog caught with his bare hands. Though Winslow’s mind hadn’t reconciled, his body had evolved. At first he’d always been tired, but now he walked vigorously all day and without pain. His limbs grew sleek, stomach ribbed with granite, beard and hair tangled and sunbleached, skin baked into a russet hide.
Against the vast landscape, human civilization often seems petty and trivial. Heathcock locates the vast majority of these tales in Krafton, a small rural town which seems fairly archetypal small town on first appearance. An Everytown, like Springfield in The Simpsons.

From The Staying Freight:
…the grace of Krafton came with the seasons, sowing, reaping, breeding an understanding that last year has no bearing on this one; this crop might be better, or worse, and regardless there’ll be another and then another. In this there was only the future and diligent work, and not emotion but movement, just as the rain falling or crops sprouting was not emotion.

Without emotion, Heathcock allows Krafton’s own unique tics and qualms come to the fore. It becomes more than just a pun Everytown. In fact, it is every bit as immaculately realised as Stephen King’s Castle Rock or Salem’s Lot. Like King, Heathcock’s world-building is supreme. Because he lets us see the cracks. He exposes them. These are stories in which the sudden flare of violence is struck, illuminating lives well beyond the act itself.

, the best story in the collection by a Krafton mile begins like this:
Spring 2008: There were more direct routes to the Odd Fellows Hall, on a dry knob north of town, but Helen Farraley 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?
This idea of what lies beneath, what is lurking, informs the whole of Peacekeeper. This is a story in which Heathcock experiments, successfully, with presenting the narrative out-of-synch, Tarantino-style. And there are three quite distinct strands. In one, Helen, the town’s sheriff, is at the centre of a missing child case, in another, she is shown with bad bruising and a heavy heart, in the third the town has been overtaken by a raging flood. But the sense of menace is never far away.

The mention of Tarantino is apt because this is very filmic writing. Other commentators have commented on the similarities the story shares with Fargo. And this is a small rural town in which a female sheriff has to face an act of terrible violence. But I find Peacekeeper has more in common with films such as Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and with Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (which was of course taken from the novel of the same name by Denis Lehane.)

Indeed, Helen has something of the archetypal Wild West sheriff about her. She’s had to learn on the job – "It’d been a joke that Helen, a middle-aged grocery store manager, had been nominated and then elected…" -  and now works to a kind of hotchpotch quilt of morality (which reflected the fractured nature of the narrative) rather than actual law. After discovering the missing child has been murdered, she tortures the killer, aware all the while that although it is the right thing to do according to her own moral code, the law wouldn’t necessarily see it that way:
Those in town, and especially those from outside Krafton, might not see grace in her methods: what she’d begun to call in her mind the Big Peace.
Hers is a morality part-way between compassion and good, old-fashioned Old Testament eye for an eye stuff. Indeed, she even starts to see her job in religious terms:
My religion is keeping peace, she thought. It hadn’t begun that way, was nothing she’d planned, but now she saw that’s how it was."
We meet Helen again in the novella length The Daughters, and she sums up her quandary succinctly:
"Because it ain’t how they train you. All that innocent until guilty bullshit. 'Cause out here, some are guilty the moment you lay eyes on 'em, and what the law ought to do is stop 'em 'fore they can do what they’re born to do. What the hell good am I otherwise? Serve and protect? (…) I’m nothing but a broom. Someone calls in a mess and I go sweep it up."
And then, finally, in Volt, where finally, the law, her own morality, and the things she’s seen have set her apart. She’s as removed from society as an outlaw:
Helen crossed to the window and gazed over the scene. Teens lounged in truck beds. Kids ran with sparklers. Men threw horseshoes in the empty lot where the SuperAmerica once stood. Others talked in the road, and though Helen had once been one of them, she was no longer sure what they said to each other, these people who saw each other day after day, week after week, until they died.

Read the story Peacemaker from this collection in the Virginia Quarterly

A. J. Kirkby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). He was awarded runner-up in the Dog Horn Fiction Prize in January 2011..

A Js other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3
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Alan Heathcock's fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including: Zoetrope, All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and Harvard Review.  His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Heathcock has been named a Scholar for both the Bread Loaf  and Tin House Writers Conferences. He is currently an “AiR” Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boise, and was named a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho by the Idaho Commission for the Arts. A native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.

Read an interview with Alan Heathcock