Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.
Throughout Volt we witness loss and gain, tragedy and survival, families united and divided. It is a gut wrenching collection, but it speaks the truth, calling to your attention the rich details of the landscape around us—every gnarled knob, desolate hill and crippled creek.
One of the things that Heathcock does well in this collection is set the stage. You get a strong sense of what it is like to live in Krafton, to struggle here, to survive. In a town like this, you wander the woods. If you don’t have a car, you walk across dirt roads, dogs barking, leaping at chain link fences, tied to a post in the ground. Ramshackle huts flank you on either side, held up by grime and sheer will. From “Lazarus”:
“The streets were plowed and salted, filthy banks of snow climbing the poles of lit signs before strips of bright shops. The high walls of the city airport stretched for blocks, a plane lifting off, its lights fading as it passed into the clouds. A day-glo truck pulled beside Vernon, its music thumping. Stoplight after stoplight, so many cars. A line of cars smoked in a chicken restaurant’s drive-through. In what looked like an old department store, a church lay between an insurance agency and a florist.”
There is a sense of history in a small town, and a sense of place. Also from “Lazarus”:
“The roads were slick and the one-hour drive from the city took two. At the Krafton exit, daylight flashed off the corrugated walls of the old McCallister mill. Vernon surveyed the sparkling land, playing in his mind the knobs beyond the mill, naming who lived on what road, knowing them by their fields, by their barns and kitchens and drawing rooms, knowing kids from parents, aunts from cousins, naming them each by their pains and praises.”
It can be a comforting presence, this familiarity around you. Or it can be suffocating. You can settle in and stay close to family and friends, or you can run like hell. Most don’t get out, unsure of what awaits them in the nearest big city, unable to picture themselves in any other setting, no matter how hard they may want to flee, or how desperate things have gotten. What would they do, who would they turn to? It’s the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t. And oftentimes, you can deal with the devil you know.
Another compelling aspect of this collection is how Heathcock empowers women. We follow Helen, the reluctant sheriff who was elected as a joke but takes her job very seriously—at least on the days that she isn’t ready to call it quits. We see her as an angel of vengeance in “Peacekeeper” and as a waning light in “Volt”. But we see her. She is humanity, in all of its anger and frustration—she is the voice of reason in a chorus of chaos and insanity. She takes her lumps at the hands of the drug-addled and violently unstable, and yet, she continues to get up, and do what is right. These passages are from “Peacekeeper” and show Helen in the true duality of her role as sheriff:
“Parked on the quarry’s service road, the cruiser growing cold with the motor off, Helen sipped peppermint schnapps and considered the world made of her design. 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. I just ran a grocery, she thought. I don’t want this. I ain’t the one to make the world right. She swallowed more schnapps, then capped the bottle and put it away in the glove box.”
And later, when required to dispense justice to the murderer and rapist Robert Joakes:
“Helen wore a rain poncho over her coat, wore yellow rubber gloves. She held the lantern to Robert Joakes’s swollen face. Faint plumes of breath trickled from his lips…She considered, as she had many times before, asking him why. But what could he possibly say? What insight could possibly be gleaned? Instead, she inserted the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth. He made noises, not words, gagging on the metal. She set the lantern on the stove, raised her poncho’s hood, turned away her face, and squeezed her gloved thumb over the trigger.”
It weighs heavy on Helen, this work she does, as it does on the reader who has to witness it. But who hasn’t rooted for revenge, for justice, preferring death at the hands of a lawmaker to time behind bars for the criminal, a cushy life with three squares and a television set, life on the inside better then it was out in the real world?
There is a great deal of loss in this collection. There is pain and suffering, questions without answers. Mothers and fathers bear witness to the death of their children, at war, by accident, at the hands of criminals, and their own clumsy mitts as well. The strong survive, the meek crumble and fall. But when the darkness descends, it is family that stands up to help you, no hesitation or explanation required. We see it in “Smoke” as a son helps his father drag a body through the woods, a fight over right of way, two men standing on a road, neither willing to surrender their path. Stubborn old coots that would prefer to die than give in. And we see it in “The Daughter” in which a mother, already filled with despair over the loss of her own mother, finds strength in the actions of her daughter and steps up to help her in the face of random tragedy:
“When she looked up from the sink, a face glared back from the window. Night had come early, and she gazed at her bleary reflection in the snow-streaked glass, stared at the room behind her, its faded wallpaper, its watery light, her baby girl slumped at the spot where each morning her mother had sipped her coffee and worked her puzzles.
Miriam set the sponge beside the sink, dried her trembling hands on the thighs of her jeans. Possessed by a great swelling of love, she went to her daughter and hugged her from behind, Miriam’s cheek pressed into Evelyn’s back. Evelyn clutched her mother’s arms crossed before her, gently kissed Miriam’s wrists.
Then it felt like victory, for they remained. They were still here while others were gone.”
I’ve spent time in small towns. For six months I withered in Conway, Arkansas, working for $5 an hour in a processing plant. And that was one of the good jobs. It was a dry county, and if you wanted something to drink, you went to the bootleggers house, but only if you knew them—shotguns at the door to protect their livelihood. I watched racism explode on Friday nights, driving the alleys, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, looking for black kids to hassle. I saw people surrender to a life at the rail yard, or the gas station, or the diner, expecting nothing better for themselves, never daring to dream any bigger. I saw girls cheat on their boys, drunk driving and domestic violence, and what it does to somebody when they pull up the rug of their house, and there is dirt underneath, instead of concrete.
When there is no stability, no permanence, and nothing on the horizon, when the only way that you’re going to have dinner is if you wander into the woods and kill it yourself—this is the tension I felt reading Volt. In Alan Heathcock there is a whisper of the lyrical Cormac McCarthy, the authority of the aforementioned Donald Ray Pollock, and the danger of Benjamin Percy. You may not come out of this collection whistling “Dixie” and it may darken your soul for a spell, but you’ll come out of it with a sense of gratitude for the tragedy you’ve avoided, and a humble grace for being allowed to see the light.