A collection by Alan Heathcock
2011 / 208 pages
The Setup: A blistering collection of stories from an exhilarating new voice.
One man kills another after neither will move his pickup truck from the road. A female sheriff in a flooded town attempts to cover up a murder. When a farmer harvesting a field accidentally runs over his son, his grief sets him off walking, mile after mile. A band of teens bent on destruction runs amok in a deserted town at night. As these men and women lash out at the inscrutable churn of the world around them, they find a grim measure of peace in their solitude.
Throughout Volt, Alan Heathcock’s stark realism is leavened by a lyric energy that matches the brutality of the surface. And as you move through the wind-lashed landscape of these stories, faint signs of hope appear underfoot. In Volt, the work of a writer who’s hell-bent on wrenching out whatever beauty this savage world has to offer, Heathcock’s tales of lives set afire light up the sky like signal flares touched off in a moment of desperation. (From the paperback edition)
Volt was the book I couldn’t escape at the tail end of 2011. Everywhere I went people were recommending it me as one of the best things they’d experienced all year. Everywhere I turned it seemed that people were talking about how wonderful a collection it was. Have you read it? Will you read it? You’ve got to review it! Pushed to the breaking point, I finally succumbed to the peer pressure and cracked open a copy to see what all the fuss was about.
Maybe it’s because it had the unfortunate task of being read directly following the masterfully written short story collection that is Shann Ray’s American Masculine, or perhaps it’s because it was yet another entry in the all too common “collection of linked short stories” genre that seems to be ultra-popular at the moment, but whatever the reason, with the exception of the standout story Furlough, the bulk of the offerings Volt contained did little to hold my interest.
What you get are eight loosely interconnected short stories featuring crime, corruption and murder in a small town rural setting. I love a good mystery as much as the next guy, with the keyword being mystery, but that’s just not the case here. People die very matter of fact-like and you pretty much know from the get-go who the culprit is. In most instances, the story involves trying to cover up the crime, including one where the local sheriff decides she should take matters into her own hands. Screw justice! Any way you look at, the lack of surprising and suspenseful moments in the whodunit department serve as anti-climactic reminders that these types of stories have been told elsewhere several times over, and in much better ways.
That’s not to say that Heathcock can’t write an amazing piece or two. The aforementioned entry Furlough is one of the most suspenseful, shocking, and horrific short stories I’ve ever read. It showcases everything that’s right about the format. Effortlessly introducing dazzlingly flawed characters with huge emotional depth that the reader immediately forms a strong connection with, this short piece left me in awe, and it kept me reading at a point where I was just about ready to throw in the towel.
The rest of the collection isn’t bad by any stretch, but it just isn’t as moving, especially to the reader who doesn’t want or enjoy the mention of religious spirituality at nearly every page turn. One understands that a small town rural setting lends itself to plenty of men and women of faith, but the author seems to overstate and overstep boundaries with regards to its usage. Alright, I get it, you love God, and I should too. Can’t we just agree to disagree and move on?
The most interesting and flawed character of the bunch, who appears in multiple stories within the collection is one Helen Farraley. She was the town’s grocery store manager until the citizens decided they need a lawful presence lurking about to keep the peace and voted her in as their sheriff. She cares deeply about her job yet has a huge disregard when comes to law itself. She desperately strives to do the right thing for those she’s sworn to protect at every turn. The problem is, what she actually does is follow her own judgments about what constitutes the difference between good and bad. She will, and knowingly does, do the wrong thing several times over in order to do what she believes is right. She’s interesting not only because of this flawed morale code that she follows, but also because of the constant danger it places her in.
Overall, Volt has enough power to deliver up several moments where the reader experiences the tingle of a small shock of current running through their brain, but it never catches fire enough to electrocute their senses the way a truly stellar novel can. It’s a strong collection of stories, but it’s a tad overhyped.