Reviewed: Volt by Alan Heathcock
(Graywolf Press, 2011)
Misery abounds in the seemingly quiet, fictional farming town of Krafton—the setting of Volt, Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories. Some emotions—whether in life or in Volt—run so deep that they lack expression. Scenes unfold as family members, friends, and townspeople of the victims search for meaning, understanding, and solace. A few find it; most don’t.
Death makes a startling appearance in each story. In “The Staying Freight,” it is present when a father, Winslow, accidentally runs over his son with farm machinery. Winslow, racked with grief, abandons his wife and farm, wandering aimlessly until he collides with an underground fighting ring, where he takes punches for money. He expresses his sense of loss to his wife: “I wish I could take my brain and put it inside your head…. Just for a moment. Then you’d know what all I can’t find how to say.”
Death is again present in “Smoke,” when a young boy, Vernon, is dragged out of his bed to help his father cremate a man he (the father) has killed in a strange road-rage accident. Vernon tries to make sense of why his father would take another man’s life when he philosophizes: “Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us…. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things anymore. Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men.”
In “The Peacekeeper,” a middle-aged female sheriff, Helen, finds the body of a missing girl hanging from a tree in the woods. Wishing to spare the girl’s family the news of her violent passing, the sheriff tells them that the girl died in a flood currently sweeping though Krafton. Meanwhile, the sheriff secretly pursues the girl’s murderer; when she finds him, horror ensues. Helen’s “religion is keeping peace.” Although for her, keeping the peace is not always within the jurisdiction of the law.
In Volt, the characters in these stories collide with forces that are beyond their control. These stories remind us that we are defined by how we respond to hard situations in life, not easy ones.
Our favorite line:
“God gets around to all of us. Every last one of us. Who the hell knows what to do about it.”