- Literary Grace
Every American place has its mythology, none so rich as those rural towns and hamlets that suffer the postindustrial economy in an armor of out-of-season blaze orange and Browning decals. Travel there—miles away from where news happens—and simple story becomes legend. Locals know the roadside spot where prom-goers wrecked in tuxes and ball-gowns and where four mysterious trees now grow, their branches intertwined like clasping hands. Or the submerged car with bodies still strapped into seatbelts, half a breath deeper than anyone can dive. In a town I know in coastal Maine, teenagers still search out the cave, accessible only at slack tide, where their great-grandfathers supposedly drowned hiding casks of bootlegged whiskey. To become this kind of American myth, the tale needs only to offend moral or natural or divine law.
This is the meat of Alan Heathcock's stunning new collection of stories, Volt. Here the place is Krafton, a fictional town set in the plains, that wind-swept quadrant of flyover county in the far west of the heartland, only a couple of clicks away from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg. And Heathcock, like Anderson, isn't so much a regional writer as he is an anthropologist, collecting the myths of suffering in story the way Alan Lomax collected the myths of suffering in song.
Grim tragedy, biblical in proportion, seems to be the catalyst that propels these stories—men gone missing, children gone missing, floods and fires and killings—all hinting at allegories of redemption and retribution without ever becoming oppressive.
In the collection's first story, "The Staying Freight," a father, ailing of heart-wreck and guilt over the accidental death of his son, lights out through his own fields and into the woods. Heathcock wisely avoids explanation, saying only that Winslow "needed wilderness, needed solitude." And the reader is subtly reminded of other mythic characters with the same needs, Jesus and Daniel Boone, Huck Finn and Moses.
Somewhere in those woods, the story turns from simple literary realism into something much darker. Unlike, say, Daniel Defoe, whose wilderness story holds the reader's attention through an accounting of the minutia of survival, Heathcock gives his character only a few weeks and a handful of paragraphs in the woods before hunters find him. Here the story becomes mythic. Winslow, anonymous in a new town, exorcises his guilt by becoming a sideshow attraction, the man who can't be knocked down, taking the punches of strangers without speaking. The metaphor is not subtle, nor should it be. Winslow's story is legend, dense as a fairy tale and full of the images of religious atonement. But it's in the last pages that Heathcock does the impossible, pulling the story from Winslow and giving it to the town of Krafton. That final move should be sentimental and schlocky, a television ending, but is not. Instead of a tale of one man's bizarre journey through grief, the story becomes about the way a community, especially such a small one, explains and defines itself. In that sense "The Staying Freight," like all the stories in the collection, has an ending that seems inevitable.
Heathcock plays with time too here. This is mythic time. Before and after blur, so that location in actual history is of no concern. If "The Staying Freight" could have taken place anytime since the invention of the pick-up truck, the next story, "Smoke," manages to keep the reader off balance for more than half its twenty pages. Here a son must help his father burn the corpse of a man the father has killed. Early in the story, the father speaks of returning from a war. This could be any American war, and that seems to be Heathcock's point. In towns like Krafton, time moves slowly, if at all. It's only when Vernon, the boy in the story, hallucinates an image of Roy Rogers (not the only allusion in this collection to the myth-making of the Hollywood Western) that the time period is clearly...