by Alan Heathcock
Ain’t nothing but trouble for the fictional town of Krafton, Somewhere Prairie, USA. In fact, any one of the searing tragedie s or subtle terrors depicted in Alan Heathcock’s debut story collection would be enough to set folks in a small town reeling, except even taken together they don’t.
Instead, the law-abiding and the lawless, the God-fearing and the Godless, stroll the desolate streets, wander the barren fields, and course the weather-swept woods, shoulder to shoulder, as if gathering for a town meeting, until the reader questions all previously-held beliefs concerning justice. Strangely, everything about this town, the sinners, the law enforcement, and the unremitting trauma–manslaughter, torture, kidnapping, fire, and flood–seems acceptable.
Eight stories are linked by place and provocation, and something else, too: the prose. Minimalism sets the tone for violent acts, while lyricism implies softness in the underlying human vulnerability responsible for creating them. The unrelenting revelation of character dispels all risk of melodrama.
In “Fort Apache,” Walt Freely observes the aftermath of arson.
Smoldering lumber jutted from charred brick. Bowling lanes lay exposed to the night, and in the lane oil lapped tiny spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds.
The first of the two sentences punches out pure description. The second contains insight into the character’s interiority. Oil on water becomes “spectral flames,” which compare to hummingbirds, reminiscent of loveliness and flight, yet the hummingbirds are grouped in a “riot,” hinting at Walt’s tumultuous sensibilities: his ghosted demons, his grasping for hope, how he wants to leave the horrors of this small town and his older brother Lonnie who does terrible things.
In the sign’s pale light, Walt studied his brother’s eyes, bright and blue and tracking the ash’s flight. Then they drew onto Walt.
“Small fires make big fires,” Lonnie said, with lilting reverence. “I surely hope so.”
Heathcock’s details work double-duty to enable images to mirror character. In “The Staying Freight,” Winslow causes the accidental death of his young son, and then grieves by fleeing his wife and farm. He takes to the wild woods. Like Walt, Winslow seeks light but meets with darkness.
The land outside was bright…At the field’s base crouched the wall of the train, a lampblack silhouette, a driverless freight.
Sunlight bucked on the water. Though his body was still, his mind reeled in flashes: a child’s boot upright in a rut; a nurse cutting away Saddie’s bloody hair; a man’s crooked finger in his face.
A moth flitted about a light shielded in wire. Soon the light blurred, the moth became lambent confetti, and his heavy lids closed.
Small fires make big fires, while small deaths mimic the important ones.
“Smoke” opens when a youth is roused from a drunken sleep and drawn into the night forest to aid his recently injured father. In a later scene, Vernon discovers the extent of his father’s misdeed and realizes the part he is expected to play. The way Vernon interprets what he sees becomes the reader’s sole insight into his trepidation.
Vernon gazed nervously about the sunlight. Through all his adventures of hunting arrowheads in these woods he’ d never crosse d paths with another human. Still he glanced at the shadow-strewn crest of the rock, then at the slashes of tree trunks down in the hollow and into the canopy where the sun flashed off leaves as it might off a lawman’s spectacles or the buckle of a holster.
…he should stay and help his father. But, the ground passed quickly beneath him and he did not slow until wire patching his boot soles snagged the grass of the dense sedge prairie.
By the story’s end, we’re not sure how Vernon’s choices play out, but the nature of a l inked collection allows the reader a scope of character development beyond the events in one story, one narrow slice of time. In Volt, protagonists in one story age and become supporting characters later in the book. If we pay close attention, or treat ourselves to a second read, seemingly loose strings may be tied up.
But don’t expect a tidy package. Instead look for the hummingbirds, the empty freights, and the flashes of an imagined spectacle. The devil is in the details.
Jodi Paloni recently earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently working on a linked story collection.