annotation by Lee Stoops
“He inhaled deeply and his insides burned, and Vernon knew that all that smoke was now just the air we breathe.”
~ Alan Heathcock, “Smoke” from Volt (60)
Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories drills into readers’ imaginations, digging for every response possible. His narratives compel senses and emotions, his characters beg attention for their eccentric, strange, dark, fleshy human presentations, his words connect to each other with the evidence of careful, precise architecture. Heathcock is a real story-teller, a wordsmith, and a powerhouse writer. It’s no surprise that this first collection has garnered so much attention and earned awards – many of its stories have already shown up in some of the most respected literary journals in the US. Both Heathcock and his stories deserve the success. Through a smart, consistent commingling of character/circumstance development, of steady and committed pacing, and of dedication to craft, Heathcock reaches for the standard of great American story-telling, and maybe even raises the bar a bit.
By the end of the first page of the first story, someone has died. Not just someone; a man’s son. And not just died, but been accidentally killed by the man. A dark, burning image of a young boy, lying in the field like something “fallen from the sky” (3) is the one Heathcock chose to set the tone for his collection, not because the collection is about death or violence or darkness, but because in each and every story, the reader will live with the characters as they react – living, breathing, loving, hating human beings – to strangely familiar (not wholly familiar, but not unfamiliar…maybe anti- or de-familiar?) – circumstances: love, loss, familial ties, sexuality, desperation. It’s the stuff readers want in short stories, but so often don’t get in modern short stories because many modern short story writers are still learning what, exactly, it takes to make a short story a real short story. The results of eager, amateur, or unseasoned short story writing are melodrama, salaciousness, and cliché. Heathcock, a teacher and student of story creation, loves his characters and commits to their circumstances. The result is a series of character-centric events that infects. An example from the short story “Smoke:”
“Maybe the Devil was in you when you did it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s better anyway, Vernon? To have the Devil in me, or to have it be me alone?”
“You ain’t a bad man, Pop.”
His father shook his head. “We are what we do.”
“You ain’t bad. I believe in that.”
“No, Vernon,” his father said. “I’m about as bad as they come. Now go on and bring Mr. Augusto in here. I need to lay still and be quiet awhile.”
“Mr. Augusto would’ve killed you.”
“Then he’d be the bad man,” his father said, quietly. “Now leave me be awhile, Vernon. Gather wood for a fire. We need lots of wood.”
Vernon studied his father in the milky light, searching for something in his face, or the way he held his body, that was evidence of the good man he knew as a child. If God didn’t want Mr. Augusto dead, why’d he let Pop kill him? With all the killing in the world, did one more man really matter?
Vernon crossed the room and crawled from the shimmering cavern. 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 in to the heat, and if 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 (50-51).
After character and circumstance, the element a short story requires to sustain its life and meaning is pace. Heathcock’s stories model methodic, measured tempo – the way a musician might craft the rise and falls of moving instrumentation. The effect is similar in that the reader can settle into the prose and let the story unfold at the speed at which it’s been set. Heathcock engineers the changes in pace with ultimate regard to the characters and their circumstances, without forgetting the reader and the needs he or she will have. In many cases, when tension mounts, Heathcock reigns in the tempo and slows the story – a move that seems contrary to story “rules” but works to the advantage of the experience, permitting the reader time and reason to steep. Heathcock’s gift in this is notable not just because it works in his stories but also because it is so challenging and it speaks to his craftsmanship that he can pull it off without it feeling forced or denuding the stories’ structures or characters. The below excerpt is from just before the end of a long story (“The Daughter”) wherein a mother and her grown daughter struggle to re-establish life after loss, and a troubled neighbor boy has gone missing on their property. The story buzzes the whole way through with ominous, slow energy, and the mystery of the boy’s disappearance sets the tone to dark and somber.
Miriam stepped to the table and swiped the sponge over the trail of salt. “You weren’t in the city,” she said, brushing salt off into her palm. “Where’d you go?”
Evelyn wiped her cheeks on her sleeve. “Don’t’ know what you mean.” She pressed the heel of her hand between her eyes.
Miriam wanted to touch her daughter, to hold her and make her feel right for what she’d done. But Miriam turned away, stepped again to the sink. She rinsed the sponge, watched the water flowing, the salt swirling down the drain.
She shut off the faucet. Snow striking the window was the room’s only sound. “Where’d you put him?” Miriam asked. “Where’d you put that little boy?”
Miriam listened as Evelyn heaved long sighing breaths, each slower, softer, than the last. “Does it matter?” she whimpered.
Miriam quietly gasped. When she looked up from the sink, a face glared back from the window. Night had come early, and she gazed at her bleary reflection in the snow-streaked glass, stared at the room behind her, its faded wallpaper, its watery light, her baby girl slumped at the spot where each morning her mother had sipped her coffee and worked her puzzles (162).
To use the word again, not as recycling but as reiterating, Heathcock is a craftsman. He assembles the skeletons of his stories to support, robustly support, the themes he imbues with his satisfying prose. His language, like his characters, his pace, and his structure, is the obvious result of smart decision-making. There are lines throughout the collection that demonstrate a word-by-word approach to construction. The result is a stylistic pay-off that rewards and informs the themes and architecture of his stories. Examples of Heathcock’s craftsmanship:
Winslow stepped to the window. The sky hung green. Soon it would snow. The hillside of winter wheat lay swaddled in snow, the rails of freight tracks like silver spears over the wet road (39, “The Staying Freight”).
Black smoke smeared the sky like an oily thumb dragged down pretty paper. In that smoke were brass buttons and blood. Vernon’s eyes burned from smoke. His hands and arms were beaded with soot-black sweat. Smoke clung to his hair, his clothes, his skin. He tasted smoke on his teeth (59, “Smoke”).
This is how I’ll be, she thought. I’ll be this icy hole, this season, this falling snow. I’ll just freeze myself over (80, “Peacekeeper”).
Jorgen could feel himself coming untethered, like he often had over there, where kids slept in the dust and nothing got buried and everything felt like it wasn’t quite real (93, “Furlough”).
His whole life now he’d been awake to feelings a child couldn’t know (110, “Fort Apache”).
Heathcock lands mightily on the short list of contemporary writers who prove that the short story form is not only alive but also that it is well, it is growing, it is coming into its own at a time when readers need more reason than ever to read. And, like his peers, Heathcock inspires other developing writers not by his market success but by his craft commitment, his example, his demonstrating that short stories – real, powerful, well-written short stories – can and are still being written and read. That’s good news for writers, and reason enough to read and write new stories.