In a Way That's Bearable:
Alan Heathcock's volt
By Chelsea Bieker
If there’s one thing I love, it’s a bunch of good, winding, layered, place-driven stories. I want to experience the desperation of history in short fiction, the calling of a cursed land reverberating through each character—a sense that there is more lying beneath what appears on the pages alone. Heathcock delivers on my hope with his debut collection, Volt. It is so good it made me miss encountering Claire Vaye Watkins for the first time a little less. Goodness, how I love Claire Vaye Watkins. But this isn’t about her. It’s just that some books ruin me from liking others, and after I read (obsessed over) Battleborn, it was hard to commit to other reading material. But it seems I’ve been saved from this perilous existence.
Enter Volt. Volt for me is akin to a first solid relationship after the required few months of recovery from a deep and profound loss. So, like, Claire, I’m finally over you (it will never be true) and I’ve moved on to Volt, a stable and beautiful man of a book who cares for me, and won’t leave me hanging and alone like all these online flash fiction paragraphs I’ve been reading. But I digress.
Heathcock’s collection is comprised of eight stories, all set in the fictional, poverty-stricken Midwest town of Krafton. The people of Krafton are in a bad way, and there is a chilled dryness to the scenery that feels palpable—no life anywhere, each story a testament to barrenness of some kind. These are characters entrenched in deep shame, fear, and longing. But Heathcock takes the human condition of suffering and twists it. I found myself almost anxiety-ridden by the emotional instability of the main characters—there was no telling what they might do with their pain, creating an unnerving reading experience. I entered that sought-after fictional dream full force, sweaty palms and all. There is a sense of building in each line, unbearable weights destined to snap. And snap they do—these stories are not for the weak of heart. These are times and people pushed to unthinkable places, where acts of retribution are left in the hands of the layman. Yet the prose is delicate but sure, Heathcock’s descriptions like a span of oil paintings creating a gallery of connectedness. It is the mark of a good story when a beautiful, poetic sentence, seemingly about a landscape, evokes a dark premonition of things to come, as in these lines from “Peacekeeper”:
Slivers of pink broached the flurries in the western sky. She paused, breathing heavily, and stared down over the valley. A black stream cut the mottled white, powdered trees hunched on their hummocks. In one distant corner of the prairie the last of daylight glinted off a tin roof.
Alan Heathcock. "Fiction is a way I can look at the real things that scare and confound me."
Heathcock is a seriously good writer, and for the most part I could endorse this collection based on the first story alone, “The Staying Freight.” Coming in at a nice 39 pages, it has the essence of a novella, and an expansive movement through time in one man’s life after he accidentally kills his son that is richly profound in its construction. The story is a compelling, sorrowful traipse through his self-afflicted exile, as he literally walks aimlessly in the wilderness for many of the pages.
With reoccurring images and characters, there is an entwined, novelesque quality to the book as a whole. Heathcock uses this town of Krafton to its full capability. It emerges as the main character, growing ever alive through each individual narrative. There is nothing flimsy about this work—it is gleaming, craft-wise, but it also has that invisible something. Volt is effectual in that special way I believe all serious readers of fiction yearn for with each unopened book, each un-cracked spine—to be swept away and changed, to be disturbed for days, even weeks after, to be astounded and confronted with beauty and moral question. To be “volted,” so to speak, out of societal pleasantries and expectations. So thank you, Alan Heathcock, for starting my 2013 reading year off right with this brilliant collection.
Chelsea Bieker is a fiction writer currently at work on a collection of stories. Her work has recently appeared in The Normal School and The Collagist.