Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: "Volt" by Alan Heathcock

I went back and forth on what to rate the book I just finished, the debut short story collection of Alan Heathcock called Volt, probably more so than any other book I have read in recent memory. My feelings are split down the middle exactly, which is rare: out of the eight stories in this collection, there are four that are great and four that are simply good. But finally, after mulling it over for a couple of nights, those four stories are too fantastic not to give this book my highest rating. Even with a few duds in this collection, it is easy to see what a great talent Heathcock is and will become in the near future. He has a great sense of place, with the fictional town of Krafton coming alive in the way that Flannery O’ Connor’s Georgia and Lansdale’s Texas do: filled to the brim with characters seeking redemption but lacking the skills and insight to do anything but take the wrong action. As the comparison suggests, Heathcock belongs to the new generation of Grit Lit authors like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock, but while those authors offer a story with blood and guts, Heathcock is more of a cerebral, emotional writer, with his character’s emotions being the main guiding force behind not only there need to succeed and gain what they want, but it also taps into the reader’s need to find out what happens next, whether these damaged people get what they deserve or not. While the other four stories in this collection are still pretty good, even if they lack the power of the ones I liked, I will just be focusing on the four stories that made this collection special. The first story in the collection “The Staying Freight” has an incredibly visceral start, where the main character, Winslow, accidently runs over his son while he is tilling the field with his large tractor. Feeling great guilt, he runs off into the woods after accidently hitting his wife. When he is found far away in another county, a local farmer takes him in and exploits him by letting the townsfolk beat on him for money. His jaw is wired shut after sustaining an injury amidst capture, so it adds to the mystique of his geek-like role. It sounds silly, but it is quite an emotional journey, bringing to mind the work of writers as varied as the aforementioned Bill and even Haruki Murakami. “Smoke” is another great story, about a father who asks his son to dispose of a body. It dissects father-son relationships and the mistakes made by both, and reminded me a lot of the opening scene in Matthew F. Jones’ A Single Shot. “Peacekeeper” is an ambiguous story told in three timelines about a female sheriff who does horrific things to cover up even more horrific actions. It’s hard to wrap your head around it sometime, but the addition of female role in one you’d expect a man to take is quite refreshing. “Fort Apache might be my favorite story, where a group of 20-year-olds on the abyss of a crushing adulthood take about dreams and destroy property in a vacant town. This story is a perfect example for the importance of this kind of literature. It takes lives lived on the brink of uselessness and gives them the poetry they so rightly deserve. While some my find the pacing of these stories a bit slow, you will be rewarded for your patience with a great new insight into low lives, and a glimpse at a new talent that might take the world by storm.

Rating: 5/5

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