By Alan Heathcock
Eight stories, by native Chicagoan Alan Heathcock, who lives and works in Idaho, where he seems to have found in that mostly rural state great inspiration in the pathetic and maniacal denizens of small towns around him - or in memories of rural Illinois, also, perhaps: several of these stories celebrating such country matters stand as tall as most of the best stories by many of our most accomplished writers.
Several figures, such as, among others, Helen Farraley, the besieged sheriff of the burg Heathcock dubs Krafton, and returned vet Jorgen Delmore, who has brought his killer instincts home from a foreign war, and the dirt roads connecting these stories like tensile threads, should immediately call to mind Sherwood Anderson's characters, setting, and technique in his linked stories in Winesburg, Ohio. Many of Heathcock's characters certainly seem as monomaniacal and pig-headed as most of Anderson's. But no one would in a right state of aesthetic mind try to rewrite Winesburg. Heathcock possesses too strong a linguistic talent to bother anyway. But when he bears down hard on his wayward, suffering small town and country characters, they do seem to play out their lives in dramas similar to the most famously repressed and inwardly seething figures in Anderson's work - when they're not behaving like raving eccentrics out of the work of Flannery O'Connor.
Take that sheriff, for instance, who feels it is her duty, among other things, to cover up a murder rather than bring the killer to justice. She loses her dignity, if not her life (and her sanity), when, in the title story, she does try to do take a stand for justice. As she bursts in on a local family, whose DNA, if tested, would probably hark back to some of Faulkner's most backward clans, she expects the worst, and almost gets it: "The cabins were circled like battlements against the overgrown woods. Kids played in the middle, stomping puddles, kicking about a green plastic bottle. Some barely out of diapers, boys and girls alike shirtless and filthy...A redheaded boy, twice as tall as the rest and nothing but legs, spat on the cruiser's hood..." When she encounters the mother of the murderous young man she's come to arrest she hears this bit of maternal wisdom: "You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone's baby, suckling the teet like anybody. Then something puts a volt in 'em and they ain't the same no more..."
This story is quite terrific, as is the opening piece, "The Staying Freight", in which a farmer named Winslow, performing a self-imposed penance for the accident that killed his son, takes off on foot across the countryside on an odyssey that strips him of everything except his own bodily strength. That penance? Taking punches in a carnival-like test of strength at the behest of a rural family that gives him shelter: "The pig man balled a fist. Winslow instinctively tightened. The punch cracked like a dry branch, and the man ran in circles with his wrist between his thighs, dropped to the dirt like an animal shot...Ham hugged Winslow's neck. 'Told you my boy's a rock,' he cackled into the night. ‘A goddamn human rock...'"
Not all the stories work this sturdily, by the sentence or in their entirety. Sometimes the rhetoric seems too exaggerated for the subject, sometimes the subject too eccentric. But as you can hear in these few sentences I've reproduced for you, when Heathcock's stories do work it is as though he puts a volt in them "and they ain't the same no more..."
Alan Cheuse's new novel is "Song of Slaves in the Desert"
Review: "Volt" by Alan Heathcock
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