In the first of the eight stories (“The Staying Freight”) from Alan Heathcock’s debut collection, we find farmer Winslow Nettles preparing to put in his winter wheat. By the second paragraph his son Rodney has jumped on the back of his tractor and fallen off. By the third paragraph Winslow takes a break, wipes his brow and turns around to see a boy laying in the plowed field “like something fallen from the sky”. By the fourth paragraph, it’s clear that Rodney is dead.
Winslow cradled his son in his lap and watched the tractor roll on, tilling a fading arc of dust toward the freight rail tracks that marked the northern end of all that was his.
Unfortunately, this is the best image in this somewhat uneven collection of loosely intertwined stories. Winslow’s journey from there is a descent into darkest guilt, willing self-punishment, all the way to the depths of despair. At the bottom of this pit is the possibility of redemption.
“Smoke” is a rather uninteresting short about a father who asks his son (Vernon) to help him dispose of the body of a man he has killed. He does amidst all the smoke references. This is after a visit from Roy Rogers. Roy will make another appearance in Vernon’s life. You would think that with all the smoke blowing this way and that there’d be fire, you know? But alas, not.
When a woman (Helen), a store clerk-manager falls into the job of sheriff in a small town, she doesn’t know anything about law enforcement. What she does know is how to take the law into her own hands. “Peacekeeper” skips between December of one year and spring of the next. The spring has the entire area flooded. In the weeks before and after Christmas, a girl goes missing, a suspect is caught, and terrible justice follows.
In “Furlough”, a man named Jorgen is temporarily on leave from his war. Iraq? Afghanistan? But is seems there’s as much the possibility of sudden violence back in “real life” as there is in hostile territory. Sometimes there’s just no escaping it.
“Fort Apache” has another disaster: the local bowling alley burns down. Floods and fires are an opportunity for the inhabitants to engage in bad behavior – highlighting the ennui and despair of small town life. Many of the characters appear in more than one story, as they go about their lives in a place called Klaxton.
“Daughter” focuses on the relationship between a mother and her daughter: Miriam and Evelyn. Another tragedy strikes: a supermarket theft results in a truck-jacking that leads to the death of Miriam’s mother. Sometime later, a boy goes missing on the farm property where Miriam’s mother had lived. Is the father responsible? Is Evelyn?
Vernon visits his estranged wife and brings a box of personal effects, unopened letters that he had hidden away from her. Their son had been killed in war and the strain on their marriage effectively ended it in “Lazarus”.
Finally “Volt” has the collection circle back (quite nicely) to the beginning as torrential rains begin and one of the town’s inhabitants says prophetically, “You fetch the animals, I’ll set to building the ark.” Most of the characters are damaged in some sense. One mother has a son who has always been troubled, and wonders why children turn out the way they do.
“You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, suckling teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ’em and they ain’t the same no more.”
Heathcock’s collection is structurally interesting, with his decision to intentionally not put them in chronological order. This decision actually works to tie them together better. But the writing is just pedestrian and won’t have me on the lookout for more of his fiction.