March 2011

Pauls Toutonghi

fiction

Volt by Alan Heathcock

Alan Heathcock's bejewelled collection of short stories, Volt, has just been released by Graywolf. I haven't been this enthusiastic about a book of stories in a while, and I want to -- in a way -- proclaim that enthusiasm, as much as possible. Heathcock read from the collection at this year's AWP; the Huffington Post has posted a link to him reading a 12-minute excerpt on YouTube. His work is out there, and it's worth tracking down.

I've read a few of Heathcock's stories before. I admired "Smoke," when it appeared in the Kenyon Review, and "Peacekeeper," in the VQR. That story won the National Magazine Award, and is a beautiful and precise, economical work of fiction. It opens with its two central characters negotiating a flooded small town:

They passed within arm’s distance of the electric sign that read FREELY’S, which usually shone bright red, but was now dark and hung just above the water line. Freda Lawson, who wore a chambray dress over yellow waders and sat beside Helen, ran a finger along the sign’s second E. Helen yanked down the woman’s arm.

“They’s wires,” she snapped. Then she gently held Freda’s elbow and softened. “Please be careful, hon.”

What makes the stories economical is the way Heathcock accrues dark -- and lingering -- images. The images characterize the story's inhabitants, give them space and show us their lives -- without pedagogy, without an intrusive, brash narrative presence. It's reserved, spare stuff.

But the powerhouse of the collection, I think, is "Fort Apache," which appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story several years ago. It begins with a fire:

The electric sign for the Krafton Bowl and Lounge was a vibrant white square atop a tall post. Set back from the road, the lounge's roof and all but one wall had collapsed. Smoldering lumber jutted from charred brick. Bowling lanes lay exposed to the night, and in the lane oil lapped tiny, spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds. Firemen shoveled dirt over the lanes. Others held blankets at the building's corners. A tuft of sparks ascended from a joist and drifted down onto the dry prairie, where a man smothered it beneath a stretch of wool...

When I typed that paragraph again, I could feel the energy of it, the way the sentences built on each other. I also felt like, as a reviewer, I could get out of the way of the prose, a bit -- and let it do its work.

Of all the stories, the darkest is perhaps "Smoke," which possibly belongs in a horror anthology. But -- all in all -- the demons of this collection are familiar, understandable American demons. They live beneath the surface of our daily lives. They are grafts of myth -- of the Old Testament in particular -- but they are also understandable. They are us.

Volt by Alan Heathcock
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975771
208 Pages