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'Volt': Stories for Mourning, After A Nameless Loss

Volt: Stories by Alan Heathcock
 

On the first page of Volt, Alan Heathcock's debut short story collection, a farmer kills his young son. It's an accident—he doesn't notice the boy hop on the back of the tractor and fall off, doesn't realize anything is wrong until he hears the pulverizing cultivator run over his child. The scene brings to mind the Robert Frost poem "Out, Out—," in which a young boy is killed in a circular saw accident, and the shocked witnesses, "since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs." But the farmer can't do that—he can only run away, abandoning his wife and ending up as a sideshow act, a human punching bag in a dive bar. In the face of the ultimate loss, we look for small mercies. But like Heathcock's farmer, we don't always find them.

The eight short stories in Volt all take place in Krafton, a bleak, fictional American farming town. And while not every story is quite as grim as the opener, "The Staying Freight," most of them come very close—Heathcock's characters are plagued with unhappiness, unhinged by loss, beaten down by tragedy. They lose their lives, even when they don't die. It's stark territory, yes, but also shocking, illuminating and unforgettable.

In "The Daughter," a woman whose mother was murdered by a carjacker tries to find solace in her child, a nursing student who has moved back to her family home. The woman isolates herself, turns away from her friends, until her unresolved anger explodes, semi-consciously, in a terrifying way. Violence is also the theme in "Smoke," in which a man kills a stranger in a bizarre road-rage incident, and makes his teenage son help him destroy the body. The centerpiece of Volt, though, is the enormously moving "Fort Apache," a story of nameless loss, crushing disappointment and random, senseless destruction.

Alan Heathcock teaches fiction writing at Boise State University, and is a literature fellow for the state of Idaho. He has written for the <em>Kenyon Review</em> and <em>The Harvard Review</em>.
/ R. Heathcock
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R. Heathcock
Alan Heathcock teaches fiction writing at Boise State University, and is a literature fellow for the state of Idaho. He has written for the Kenyon Review and The Harvard Review.

There's nothing easy about trying to distill tragedy and pain into the space of one short story. In Volt, Heathcock does it eight times, with a remarkable sense of compassion, and a deeply felt understanding of the mechanics of mourning. The need for isolation—the urge to disappear—is a natural instinct after loss, a predictable reaction. "Even Christ needed time to hisself," says a preacher in "The Staying Freight," trying to reassure the farmer who lost his son. It's an echo of Gethsemane, where, according to Christian theology, Jesus prayed alone on the night before he was crucified. He knew what was coming, of course. The characters in Volt, just like the rest of us, do not.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.