On this page:
Book Review: The New Mexico Trilogy of Rick Collignon (reviewed by Dan Wickett)
Book Review: Rising from the Plains, by John McPhee (reviewed by David Abrams)
Essay: The End of the Line, the Start of a Book, by Lance Weller
Book Review: Volt, by Alan Heathcock (reviewed by David Abrams)
The Purpose of the Native Home of Hope
Book Review: The New Mexico Trilogy of Rick Collignon
by Dan Wickett
The Journal of Antonio Montoya
Originally published by MacMurray & Beck, paperback currently in print via Unbridled Books
This extremely well-packaged debut novel by Rick Collignonannounces the arrival of a fantastic writer who should be watched closely in the future. MacMurray & Beck found another winner with Collignon and his tale of the town of Guadalupe, New Mexico.
The book is slight, probably 4 x 6 inches and just over 200 pages long to boot, but the story is huge. It is the story of family, and how history can be used to remind us of how to live our lives today.
Collignon focuses on the Montoya family in The Journal of Antonio Montoya. The tale begins when little Jose Montoya loses his father and mother to an automobile accident with a cow one August morning. At the funeral, his mother sits up in her casket and tells his Aunt Ramona that she would prefer that Ramona take care of little Jose, rather than his Uncle Flavio and his wife Martha.
Ramona reacts to this event by telling Flavio her intentions to take and raise Jose for her deceased brother and sister-in-law. She takes Jose through town and to her house, where she encounters her grandfather Epolito Montoya—who has been dead for some thirteen years at the time. Getting past him at the door allows her to run into her deceased grandmother who offers her food. It really isn't until little Jose follows his grandfather out to irrigate the fields that the reader sees that Ramona is not just hallucinating and that the dead have returned to the scenes of the living.
The amazing thing about Collignon's story-telling abilities is that once the reader realizes that everybody is seeing the dead, the idea no longer seems preposterous at all, and the presence of any of them just flows along with all of the other plotlines.
Ramona had left the little town of Guadalupe, going to a bigger city and trying to make her way as an artist, a painter. She never truly felt like she fit in with her parents or two brothers. It wasn't until some time after she returned that she found her muse as an artist—the town of Guadalupe itself. She began to paint the town, piece by piece, including a haunting scene of the cemetery engulfed in flames.
Jose's Uncle Flavio comes by, partially with the plan of taking Jose back home to Martha—the two of them had not been able to have the children they had always talked about raising, even with many years of unfettered lovemaking. It isn't until he encounters his grandparents that he even gets an inkling of why Ramona has taken the task of raising Jose upon herself. He ends up getting Martha to come over—she and Rose had always gotten along very well—and going out to irrigate the field with Epolito and Jose.
Rose will have nothing to do with allowing Ramona to help out around the house. She instead gives her an old musty book to read—The Journal of Antonio Montoya. In it, Ramona reads the history of the town of Guadalupe from back when her distant relative Antonio was a Santero—one who carved religious icons out of wood for others to put in their homes.
It is through the history of Antonio and the town of Guadalupe back in his day that Ramona pieces together how family interacts, how some things that shouldn't, go unsaid, and vice versa. It is through the reading of this history that she learns about herself, why she acts and reacts the way she does. What the history is capable of doing is making Ramona realize that she has a purpose, and that she is not lost in life.
The book is a powerful little tale and extremely well written. Collignon has a style that makes the words dance along the page. It is not due to action, not verbosity—it is just the style he employs that makes the words such a treat to read along. This debut is not to be missed.
Originally published by MacMurray & Beck, paperback currently in print viaUnbridled Books
In Perdido, Collignon returns to his fictional town of Guadalupe, New Mexico. While the Montoyas are present again, they do not dominate the second novel like they did the first.
Collignon instead concentrates on Will Sawyer and the folks that he associates with, specifically his business partner Felipe and Will's girlfriend Lisa. Will has landed in Guadalupe through some sort of fate—he ran out of gas one day and walked into town, finding an old abandoned house to take over.
Will and Felipe do construction work together. Felipe is married with a few children while Will is single. Will's girlfriend Lisa works as a waitress and lives in a trailer at the back edge of her mother's homestead. Her hotheaded brother lives with her mother still and is none too happy that she has taken up with Will, a non-Latino.
While they are going to another larger town for supplies one day, Felipe mentions to Will that one day a young girl was found to have committed suicide by hanging herself on the bridge they were about to cross. The story interests Will and he wants to know more, so Felipe tells him to talk to an elderly gentleman who was around at the time. After talking to him, Will learns that a specific police officer was in charge of the investigation, and he was still around. His name was Ray.
As soon as Will brings up the subject, Ray gets very defensive and angry and threatening. Will apologizes, not understanding how asking a simple question has caused this amount of anger, and leaves. Later that night, he is awakened as his house is lit by headlights. It is the car of Ray's nephew. As he and his buddies make a lot of commotion and drink, Will gets angry and determines he wants to find out more about the girl now.
The further he looks into the story, the angrier the people in town get with him. Collignon does a great job of allowing the reader to feel Will's frustration in the matter by not getting into the heads of the townsfolk. Instead, one is left with Will's thought process and is as confused as he is about the anger being projected on him.
Collignon uses the people of Guadalupe well in this novel to look at the feeling of displacement within a community. Will is never made to feel like he's one of the community, and the incidents following his simple line of questioning don't do anything to help out in that matter.
As he finds out more about the history of the incident, he really never finds out the truth.
Collignon shows his confidence in his storytelling with the fact that the incident that the main story revolves around—the death of the girl—is not only an historical event, and it is never cleared up or explained; it just dangles there throughout the story.
Collignon is correct in his confidence however—the explanation is not needed nor missed. As in his debut effort, the writing is fantastic and further develops the dancing usage of the English language established last time around. The only thing missing is more involvement of the Montoyas—Collignon did such a great job establishing their identities in his first Guadalupe novel that it seems they should be a great part of any story told there.
A Santo in the Image of Cristobal Garcia
Originally published by BlueHen Books, paperback currently in print via Unbridled Books
Collignon once again returns to his fictional town of Guadalupe, New Mexico, with what appears to be a final visit. This time the Montoyas are the dominant family in the story being told, just as in his Collignon's first effort.
This novel gives Collignon's readers a more thorough version of the history of Guadalupe as a large portion of the book involves Flavio Montoya, relating as he and his friend Felix used to listen to the last of the Garcia family recall the events of the three founders of the small town. The story is a fascinating one that readers will be more than content to hear Collignon's version as opposed to my recap of it.
Collignon also gives his readers what appears to be the end of the town's history as the entire town is engulfed in flames through much of the novel. There is some confusion over how the fire was started as Collignon continues a trait from his past novels of jumping into a story after the initialization of an event and not actually having that storyline complete before the end of the book.
He also brings back an element from his first novel—that of the unreliable character. Where the reader was fully aware that characters that were dead were very active in The Journal of Antonio Montoya, in this effort we are treated to Flavio's dreaming and the fact that Felix is walking around, even though he had a debilitating stroke within the last decade. Another old friend of Flavio and Felix wanders towards the fire with only a shovel and is consumed by the flames only to reappear at Flavio's sister Ramona's house later on.
Collignon also returns to review his issues with the feeling of displacement within a community. The non-Latino Officer Oliver is virtually ignored by the townspeople while he is trying to determine the cause of the fire and help get folks out to safety. In each of the three efforts, Collignon has looked at this issue in a different manner, keeping it fresh.
Collignon is hitting on all cylinders with this effort—the writing is fantastic and further develops the dancing usage of the English language established in his first two novels. In bringing back the Montoya family, he eliminates the only slight complaint a reader might have had with Perdido, and in telling the full history from beginning to end of Guadalupe, he gives his readers everything they could ask for this time. As they were overlooked when they came out, try to find the first two novels first—this one works by itself, but it would be a shame to not enjoy the town as it was meant to be.
(All three reviews originally written in 2002 and distributed via email from the Emerging Writers Network.)
Dan Wickett founded the Emerging Writers Network in 2000 and co-founded Dzanc Books in 2006 with Steven Gillis. He edited the short story anthology Visiting Hours (Press 53) and has published a short story in Quick Fiction.Buy Visiting Hours
Book Review: Rising from the Plains, by John McPhee
Reviewed by David Abrams
I never became a geologist for the simple reason that my mother embarrassed the hell out of me in 10th grade. On one particular day, she shamed me so thoroughly that the mechanism that produces the blush reaction in my neurological system overheated to such a degree it broke. And it was all because I was failing Geology. To this day, you only have to say the word “rock” and I turn beet-red. This becomes particularly troublesome when people around me start talking about rock-and-roll.
At any rate, there I was back in 10th grade, blissfully minding my own business in Mr. Rudd’s fifth-period Geology class. He was mid-lecture when there came a sharp rap on the door and, without waiting for an invitation, my mother poked her head in the door. She looked at Mr. Rudd and said, “Can I speak to you for a moment?” At the time, she worked as a secretary in the Main Office and was always poking her head into my classrooms willy-nilly. [Psychological footnote: the trauma of having your parent work in your schoolduring the Acne Years can cause some serious permanent damage that can only be antidoted with heavy drinking and the occasional Prozac prescription. Don’t ask me how I know.]
I sat there in Geology class, my blush mechanism already firing on all pistons. Necks craned, heads swiveled in my direction, silence filled the air. You could have heard a pebble drop.
The next head to pop back into the classroom belonged to Mr. Rudd. He had a head that was elfin in nature—I always thought he looked like Yoda with smaller ears and darker hair, not a pretty sight under any circumstances. He crooked his finger at me and I rose from my seat to walk, jelly-legged, out to the hall. There, I joined the impromptu fifth-period Parent-Teacher conference already in progress. I knew what was going on: my mother had, in the course of her secretarial duties, seen my latest progress reports.
Out there in the hallway, my mother’s face was working through measurable stages of anger and disappointment. She was rendered speechless, so Mr. Rudd did all of the talking. “Your mother is concerned,” he said.
“She’s worried about the grade you’re getting my class this quarter. Right now, it’s an F.”
“She feels you can do better. And so do I. You can do better, can’t you?”
“At that point, I wished, somewhat appropriately, for our town to be struck by an earthquake or, at the very least, be buried in a mudslide.”
I nodded. Words were beyond me, having lodged in the middle of my throat where they refused to budge. At that point, I wished, somewhat appropriately, for our town to be struck by an earthquake or, at the very least, be buried in a mudslide. I looked at my mother, putting as much sorrow and regret in my eyes as I could. How I wished I could lie to her and tell her that I loved rocks.
Mr. Rudd cleared his throat and, in a very discreet, solemn Yoda-like manner, retreated to his classroom and picked up where he left off with his lecture: “Earthquakes Aren’t Anyone’s Fault.”
Despite her fury and anguish, my mother finally broke down and gave me a hug there in the middle of the hallway of my high school and, even though my blush-o-meter was completely broken at this point, it did feel good. Right there and then, I resolved to do better in Mr. Rudd’s class, and when the next report card was issued, damned if I didn’t do better. I got a D.
I tell you this story by way of a long introduction to John McPhee’s masterful Rising From the Plainsto make a point: even the biggest dunderhead with an aversion to all things geologic can sit down to read a book with the words “feldspar,” “Eocene” and“upthrust” without feeling the urge to throw up.
In the moments after I returned to class, my mother went back to the Main Office, and the surface of my scalp started to cool, I would never ever have imagined I’d be sitting here, nearly four decades later, typing these words: Geology is fun. Or, if it’s not entirely “fun,” then it’s certainly a thing of beauty in the hands of Mr. McPhee.
Rising From the Plains, which renders the formation of the Wyoming landscape into something resembling poetry, was first published in 1986 and forms part of a series of books McPhee wrote about rocks ’n stuff: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California. Each of those chapters of geologic history—in which McPhee tags along with geologists from Brooklyn to San Francisco—has been assembled into one volume (along with an extra chapter, “Crossing the Craton”)called Annals of the Former World. This 700-page book, as heavy and beautiful as a chunk of quartz, justly won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1999. Rather than spend a lot of words on Annals of the Former World, I’ll just say this: if you are in the least bit interested in McPhee’s prose or if the very mention of the word “sediment” provokes an orgasmic spasm in your nether-regions, then by all means buy it. Money spent on McPhee is never wasted.
But now, let’s examine just one layer of that geologic timetable: Rising From the Plains…
Here’s what we’re greeted with on the very first page:
This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in the autumn of 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white.
Reading those sentences, I was immediately hooked and pulled into the rest of the book. It’s like putting one tentative foot into the edge of a swift river and having the force of the current suck you into the middle of the stream before you can even catch your breath.
“Reading those sentences, I was immediately hooked and pulled into the rest of the book. It’s like putting one tentative foot into the edge of a swift river and having the force of the current suck you into the middle of the stream before you can even catch your breath.”
McPhee’s style is sinuous, detailed and, yes, as irresistible as a river current. In this and other books (like his Alaska-adventure classic Coming into the Country), he is always just one inch shy of fiction (at least in terms of style). Sure, he’s discussing geology, but it’s never ever dry as dust (Mr. Rudd, are you listening?). And so, we get gorgeous, instructive sentences like these:
It was a shale so black it all but smelled of low tide. In it, like mica, were millions of fish scales. It was interlayered with bentonite, which is a rock so soft it is actually plastic—pliable and porous, color of cream, sometimes the color of chocolate.Or these:
In the Bronco, we moved through the snow toward the mountains, crossing the last of the Great Plains, which had been shaped like ocean swells by eastbound streams. Now and again, a pump jack was visible near the road, sucking up oil from deep Cretaceous sand, bobbing solemnly at its task—a giant grasshopper absorbed in its devotions.
At the wheel of that Bronco is David Love, of the U.S. Geological Survey and then-supervisor of the Survey’s environmental branch in Laramie, Wyoming. Like any journalist worth his weight in ink, McPhee managed to track down the most interesting character to guide him through his geologic journey across Wyoming. Known as the “grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology” by his colleagues, Love was born “in the center of Wyoming in 1913”and knew every inch of the land like the back of his gnarled hand.
McPhee has a keen, observant eye and he has a remarkable ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Here, for instance, is how he describes Love when we meet him on page 5:
The grand old man had a full thatch of white hair, and crow’s feet around pale-blue eyes. He wore old gray boots with broken laces, brown canvas trousers, and a jacket made of horsehide. Between his hips was a brass belt buckle of the sort that suggests a conveyor. Ambiguously, it was scrolled with the word“LOVE.” On his head was a two-gallon Stetson, with a braided-horsehair band. He wore trifocals. There was stratigraphy even in his glasses.
Notice how subtly McPhee turns man into landscape in that last sentence. Throughout the book, the author has the knack for sidling up to his subject, appearing to look at it from the corner of his eye. With a casual flick of his wrist, he turns geology into something profound.
Most of the book consists of McPhee’s days spent with Love as they bounce around Wyoming’s sage-covered bluffs in the Bronco. Every so often, McPhee includes passages from a diary, written by Love’s mother—as it turns out, the white-blond lady stepping off the train in 1905 Rawlins. (It also turns out that Love’s great-uncle was John Muir.) McPhee layers the two narratives—personal history and geologic history—like the overlapping plates of the earth’s crust. It is masterful, confident writing and it never once loses our rapt attention (unlike certain 10th-grade teachers I’ve known … ahem).
At this point, I must confess a personal bias toward Rising From the Plains: I am a child of Wyoming, having spent eleven years of my youth in the state. Deep affection for the state runs like granite strata through my body and so my eyes were already a bit tainted before they landed on the pages of McPhee’s book.
|Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park (via)|
And yet, he writes of Wyoming’s landscape in a way that makes it completely new and, incredibly, as thrilling as the latest John Grisham bestseller (“incredibly,” since we are, after all, talking about a pile of rocks). For instance, I must have boated across Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake at least four dozen times in my life. But then I read this paragraph and a shiver trickles down my spine:
In the Teton landscape are forms of motion that would not be apparent in a motion picture. Features of the valley are cryptic, paradoxical, and bizarre. In 1983, divers went down into Jenny Lake, at the base of the Grand Teton, and reported a pair of Engelmann spruce, rooted in the lake bottom, standing upright, enclosed in eighty feet of water.
You could have told me that my mother was Queen Victoria’s great-granddaughter and I would not have been more surprised by the revelation. This is just one small way in which McPhee—here and in all of his books—opens our eyes to the natural world around us, that fragile-crusted globe we take for granted and daily plow, pave and burden with our footsteps. Or, as Love himself says, “If there was one thing we learned, it was that you don’t fight nature. You live with it. And you make the accommodations—because nature does not accommodate.”
I tell you about my personal connection to Rising From the Plains because, wouldn’t you know, the geology of Wyoming was exactly what I was supposed to be studying in that fifth-period class 24 years ago. Back then, the landscape was nothing but a mind-numbing blur of stone and dust. I can only imagine what I might have become if I’d had Mr. McPhee as my guide. Perhaps today I would be out there somewhere walking along a riverbed and stopping, every now and then, to chip away at the hard beauty of the earth.
Buy Rising from the Plains at IndieBound or at Amazon
This review was originally published on Epinions.
Reviewer David Abrams is the author of Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq War (Grove/Atlantic) that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic.” His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review, and other literary quarterlies. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana, with his wife. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com. (Author photo courtesy Lisa Wareham Photography.)
The End of the Line, the Start of a Book
by Lance Weller
|The Washington coastline near the Ozette Triangle|
The old man smiled. “There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you. There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them … Every place is taken. But that’s not the worst—no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn’t a hunger any more.” - John Steinbeck, The Red Pony
When I first began my novel, Wilderness, the idea of westering was the furthest thing from my mind. I simply wanted to try and tell a good, simple story about an old man and his dog. But then the American Civil War intruded upon it and then the old man was alone on some dark beach somewhere and I realized he’d come west despite whatever my intentions for him had been. So Wilderness became a novel of westering as much as it was a novel of violence, war, and redemption but not the westering of whitetop wagons and endless prairies but, rather, the endpoint of those mythopoeic tropes.
Early in the writing—before really even knowing what the book would be about but still feeling it bubbling up and hard to ignore—I hiked the Ozette Triangle in the northwestern corner of Washington State. A loop trail that runs from the misty cauldron of Ozette Lake through a dark forest of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock to the ocean and back, there is a place, after you pick your way down the steep bank to the beach, known as Cape Alava that is the westernmost point in the contiguous United States. From here, you can go no farther west. The hogsback of Ozette Island rears up from the seething grey water a few hundred yards out but you can’t walk any farther west upon this continent. It is very much the end of the line and feels it.
|The Washington coastline near the Ozette Triangle|
On that day, my mind was filled with thoughts of my book—what shape to give it, how to get it done, how to keep myself fed as I did—and I remember realizing that this was the place my character, Abel Truman, would end up. So the certainty of Abel’s history, nebulous before, suddenly became clear to me amidst the sea-stacks and salt spray. There was no other place that would draw him like this remote landscape, this terminus of dark surf and dark trees and the endless western sky of packed grey clouds. And Abel would be pulled here not for the new beginnings the West has typically promised the American heart, but because he was broken and utterly bereft; because, whether he realized it or not, he needed a place with a horizon that was annihilating and that showed him nothing to remind him of his past—his family dead and his war gone by.
I knew that Abel would stay in this place, watching the nightdark ocean and trying regenerate from the heartbreak and outrageous violence of his life. I knew that his interior journey must match his exterior and that the westering impulse—given in to by so many—would, in his case end not in a hatred of the barrier of the ocean, but in a turning back from it. As I stood that day on the terminus watching the water, I had just an inkling of the broader shape Wilderness would take: that Abel Truman, after a time of solitude and healing, would be pulled away, this time back to his antecedents, back to the east again, just like the loop trail I followed that day.
Photos courtesy of Lance Weller
Lance Weller is the author of Wilderness upcoming from BloomsburyUSA, September 2012. His short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, New Millennium Writings, Quiddity, The White Whale Review, The Broadkill Review, and Terracotta Typewriter.
Book Review: Volt, by Alan Heathcock
Reviewed by David Abrams
The title of Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories practically begs for allusions to electricity, but the fact of the matter is, Volt really does energize and jolt the reader from the very first paragraph to the final lines, which linger, sparking and buzzing, long after the last page is turned.
Heathcock worked ten years on these stories and the hard, lonely hours of the solitary writer at his keyboard have paid off as readers now hold one of the year’s best short story collections in their hands. Volt makes us think, makes us feel, and makes us believe in the power of short fiction once again.
In a tradition stretching from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Heathcock links the stories in Volt through location and character—the residents of the fictional Krafton. They are set in an indefinable place and time. It could be Indiana in the 1950s or it could be Montana in the 2010s, but the characters are, at heart, those folks who live next door to us; or, more precisely, those who live in the mirror. Heathcock has gone directly to the heart of what makes us tick and breathe in a world thrown into disarray, no matter if it’s the Cold War or the Iraq War in the background.
With a certain Midwestern stoicism, most of Heathcock’s characters are men and women of few words. In the collection’s opening story, “The Staying Freight,” Winslow Nettles embarks on a weeks-long cross-country odyssey after he accidentally kills his boy and causes a train derailment. Before he departs, however, he leaves a note on the kitchen table for his wife: Took a walk. Be back soon.
In fact, Winslow will not be back anytime soon. He has set off on a sojourn across a rough landscape and, metaphorically, across an equally scarred soul. The circumstances for his prolonged descent into a personal hell of his own choice is the kind of punishing, self-imposed exile typical to many of the characters in Volt. Heathcock’s men and women feel they aren’t worthy—not in the eyes of their Creator, nor even in the judgment of their friends and neighbors in Krafton. Sin, guilt, regret, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy wrestle like naked, greased angels of God in these pages.
At one point in “The Staying Freight” Winslow contends not with an angel, but with “a scraggly pine rising from the rock” he finds on his trip across the countryside while fleeing from the guilt over his son’s death:
Winslow hurled stones at the little tree. Wrung its trunk as if it were a throat. He flailed and throttled the sapling to the ground. Winslow hugged its limbs and tried to weep, but was, at last, dry of tears. Under a pale moon, Winslow knew he no longer belonged to the world of men and would forever roam the woods as a lost son of the civil.
That last sentence in particular is a good example of the heightened language that Heathcock wields like a heavy, sharp sword throughout Volt. Equal parts Old Testament and Cormac McCarthy, these sweeping, severe pronouncements rise up and smite us in the eyes. Though they sometimes jar us out of the book by their sheer audacity, they nonetheless work in the overall context of all the stories in the collection. I mean, you’ve gotta admit it takes a ballsy writer to deliver a sentence like this in describing a father at the limit of his mourning for a dead son: “Then there were no more words, and the anchor whose ship was battered by a yearlong storm broke free from the reef of Vernon’s heart.” In lesser hands, a sentence like that would make us roll our eyes. Coming from Heathcock out of the emotional core of his already-amped-up prose, it adds rather than detracts to the centrifugal force of the stories.
Heathcock writes not just from a Biblical lineage, but he comes to us by way of the magical realists as well. In “The Staying Freight,” after his jaw is shattered in a fight, the grieving Winslow (a name that could be parsed as“Wins Low” or “Win Slow”) becomes even more stoic, scribbling words on a notepad and allowing himself to be turned into a sideshow freak with rock-hard muscles that crumple all boxing opponents. Winslow’s shell of sorrow is so hard that punches thrown at him end in splintered bone. Underneath that granite exterior, however, is a man who feels terrible about the chain of events he’s set in motion. “Just can’t move away from myself,” he laments. The punches are his penance as he turns into “a lockjawed, feral-haired savage.”
Lest you think “The Staying Freight” ends in miserable emotional squalor, let me just say—without giving too much away—there is redemption and the first steps toward forgiveness at the climax of the story. There is also one of the purest expressions of love from a man who can’t form the right words for his wife: “I wish I could take my brain and put it inside your head,” Winslow said. “Just for a moment. Then you’d know what all I can’t find how to say.”
Winslow is not alone in his struggles. In the course of this book, a pastor wrestles with guilt over his son’s combat death in Iraq, a father enlists his son’s help in disposing of a man he’s killed when their trucks come to an impasse on a single-lane road, bored and restless teens vandalize a neighboring town with bowling balls, and Sheriff Helen Farraley conceals the discovery of a murdered girl’s body from fellow citizens who, she thinks, would be devastated by the truth.
Sheriff Farraley is at the core of most of Volt's stories—including what I think is destined to be Heathcock's masterpiece:“Peacekeeper,” the brilliantly told account of how she hides the girl's corpse and metes out her own brand of justice to the killer—an act she calls “the Big Peace.” She's a former grocery-store manager who was nominated to the peacekeeping post on a whim during a town meeting at the First Baptist Church. When a flood straight out of the Book of Genesis threatens to wash away Krafton, it's Helen who must provide the stable, emotional core of the community, even though she's as spiritually damaged as the rest of them.
Parked on the quarry's service road, the cruiser growing cold with the motor off, Helen sipped peppermint schnapps and considered the world made of her design. My religion is keeping peace, she thought. It hadn't begun that way, was nothing she'd planned, but now she saw that's how it was. I just ran a grocery, she thought. I don't want this. I ain't the one to make the world right.
Like everyone else in Krafton, Helen is ripped asunder by a torment in which good and evil are written in billboard-sized letters.
With an Old Testament God looming over Krafton’s horizon like an anvil-shaped cloud, it’s safe to say that Heathcock knowingly ventures into Flannery O’Connor territory (minus the barbed humor). Everything rises and everything converges in these eight stories that interlace like a darker, meatier Winesburg, Ohio. Many of Heathcock’s characters are trying to make their way through an uncertain world—one woman literally wanders through a cornfield maze of her own design—and if they haven’t fully reached understanding and redemption by the last sentence, they are at least several steps closer. Sometimes the epiphanies are as simple as this statement from a pastor’s wife: “No matter what you say, or how much you talk, someone isn’t really forgiven until you can stand beside them without wanting to slap them in the face.” Flannery herself couldn’t have said it any better.
Here’s another example of a character working through a spiritual tangle:
Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us, Vernon thought, trudging up the lightless tunnel. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things no more. Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men. Vernon pushed on toward the light of day. He stepped out onto the ledge and into the heat, and it felt like leaving a theater after the matinee had shown a sad film, the glare of sunshine after the darkness far too real to suffer.
That’s from “Smoke,” a story in which young Vernon helps his father burn the body of a man killed when he refused to give way to Vernon’s father on that one-lane road. “Once things change they don’t never turn back,” the father tells his son, and that aura of inevitability and permanent sin settles like mist over Krafton throughoutVolt.
For all the dark clouds, there are moments of breathtaking beauty in the prose, as in these opening sentences from “Fort Apache”:
The electric sign for the Krafton Bowl and Lounge was a vibrant white square atop a tall post. Set back from the road, the lounge’s roof and all but one wall had collapsed. 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.
It takes a bold imagination to summon hummingbirds from the char of a fire. And Heathcock is nothing if not bold. Later in that same story, there’s this gem of a passage:
“Sometimes I wish I was in the movies,” [Walt] said. “Not to be famous or nothing. I just wish I was made of light. Then nobody’d know me except for what they saw up on that screen. I’d just be light up on the silver screen, and not at all a man.”
When I read sentences like that, I am overwhelmed to such a degree that I have to set the book aside for a moment and walk around the room just to give my brain and my blood enough time to absorb all the perfect things that Heathcock does on the page.
The characters in Voltlead hard lives riven by enough tragedy to fuel a cycle of Shakespeare plays, but Heathcock always leaves enough space for the sun to shine through the cracks of the stories. Or, in the case of “Lazarus,” through the panes of stained glass as Vernon, now the town's pastor, dispenses spiritual advice to a troubled teen:
Vernon stared up at a window lit in amber, Jesus serving the fish and loaves on a Galilean hillside. “Every day’s a new batch of crosses,” he finally said. “All of us taking our turn.” Vernon watched Dillard until the boy gave him his eyes. “Christ didn’t just die for our sins, son,” Vernon said. “Christ taught us how to be crucified. How to go off into the tomb. But then, after a while, that rock rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more.”
When Volt’s characters come out of the tomb, or crawl out of caves that smell of burned corpses, they are washed clean through and through—as are readers when they surface from the depths of these extraordinary stories.
This review was originally published on the Quivering Pen.
Reviewer David Abrams is the author of Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq War (Grove/Atlantic) that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic.” His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salamander,Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review, and other literary quarterlies. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana, with his wife. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com. (Author photo courtesy Lisa Wareham Photography.)