"Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field." With this strong and jarring sentence so begins a powerful collection of connected short stories by Alan Heathcock, a Chicago native who teaches fiction at Boise State University. "Volt," his extraordinary first book, is mired with murder and mayhem but laced with hints of humanity and hope.
Loosely centered around the small rural community of Krafton, a cast of characters comes and goes in these eight stories, and so does time, making "Volt" differ from Sherwood Anderson's similarly structured "Winesburg, Ohio," which centers on a single protagonist.
Heathcock's focus is broader and digs deeper into darkness than Anderson's, and he masterfully uses language that gives a poetic voice to the working class people who populate these stories. "Now and forever I'll be the man what killed his boy," is how farmer Winslow thinks of himself after a tragic accident in the opening story, "The Staying Freight."
These stories, where death frequently appears, go right for the jugular. Heathcock's haunting narratives and disturbing characters fit perfectly with his vivid, icy descriptions: "The night hung a damp chill," Heathcock tells us in "Furlough," a tale of trust and deceit; in "Smoke," we learn of Vernon, age 15, who helps his father with an almost unspeakable task: "His father wore a filthy undershirt, hand swaddled in a blood-stained rag. A cut sliced the meat of his shoulder, the skin jaggedly sewn with green thread."
We meet Pastor Hamby in different contexts in several stories, including "The Daughter" -- which has as many twists and turns as the corn maze in which the plot revolves -- where his canonical confidence aids people in need; and in "Lazarus," where he is the one in need of counsel as he and his former wife read letters for the first time written by their late son.
Another recurring figure is the very likable Sheriff Helen Farraley (a middle-aged former grocery store manager and Krafton's first and only law officer) who, in "Peacekeeper," has the harrowing task of searching for a missing teenage girl while helping residents during a major flood. She reappears in the title story, "Volt," where she confronts a family known for their disregard for the law, forcing her to make a sudden escape: "Cows stood silent as she climbed through them, asleep on their feet as the history in their blood instructed."
With precise, often gritty, language Heathcock delivers many dark surprises in these stories, all brilliantly told, in situations and settings that grab at the edges of our comfort yet make us nervously wish for more.
Jim Carmin lives in Portland, Ore., and reviews fiction for the Oregonian and the Star Tribune, as well as poetry for the Cerise Press and Solar Mirage.