208 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2011.
A good story has the power to divert us from our struggles as well as to help us understand them. This is one reason people turn to fiction, and it explains why Alan Heathcock's debut short-story collection, Volt, is an ideal book for our times. Characters face tragedies heaped one upon another: the death of a child and a parent; broken marriages and gruesome murders; the loss of humanity and civility; the effects of war and wasted landscapes on community. Heathcock -- who teaches fiction at Boise State University and was named a literature fellow for the state of Idaho -- paints each story vividly, with a stark realism; his characters are captured by their own bad decisions and bleak destinies. In "Smoke," Vernon, a boy who helps his father cover up a terrible crime, wonders sadly if maybe "awful things is all God's got to remind us he's alive."
Many of Volt's stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton, a church-going, agricultural community, with freight trains rumbling through it and fire and floodwaters threatening its existence. The characters, some crossing paths within the stories, others living in different decades, are inextricably bound to this place. In "The Staying Freight," a farmer flees Krafton after accidentally running over his son while harvesting his fields; his grief sets him walking for months through wilderness, a self-imposed exile as a kind of atonement for his sin. He returns not fully healed; like others in the book, all he can do is keep moving, stepping doggedly into the next day. For Winslow, the farmer, "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 another." Or as another character describes it: "Christ taught us how to be crucified. How to go off into that tomb. But then, after a while, that rock rolls away and the sun shines and you get to live some more."
It is insights like this, keen observations about what it means to live in a difficult world, that keep these stories from feeling too dark and burdensome. In a recent interview, Heathcock describes his writing process as "forcing myself to peer into the darker corners of the human experience, at grief, lawlessness, violence, at the tenuous nature of peace, as an act of hope." Although readers may hunger for his lost characters' redemption, in the end Heathcock gives them, and in turn us, something better.