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The town of Krafton, where Alan Heathcock’s bracing debut story collection is set, is an amalgam of disaster zones: Its residents suffer floods and abductions, car accidents and tractor mishaps, near misses with locomotives, and direct hits from tire irons. In Volt’s title story, the local sheriff begs off helping a farmer’s ailing cow by saying, “I deal in people. People, not animals.” But in every story, Heathcock works to flatten the distinction between man and beast. This is Bad News, U.S.A.
The kind of fiction Heathcock writes has been resurgent in recent years, as Wells Tower, Donald Ray Pollock, Benjamin Percy, Philipp Meyer, and others have focused their stories on rough-hewn masculinity in the hinterlands. Heathcock’s twist on the subgenre is to make women just as complicit as men, both in their violence and their disinterest in its consequences. The sheriff in “Volt,” Helen, suffers a humiliating punch in the throat when she attempts to run in a local who’s missed a court date, but fights back just as hard; in “Peacekeeper,” her treatment of a child’s killer is tantamount to torture. “Laws on killing, even God’s demands, didn’t allow for peace,” she muses, pondering how much to mistreat him. “Not always. There’d still be pain.”
Yet Helen isn’t simply callous, and Krafton isn’t soulless. Heathcock’s great talent is for finding the glimmers of humanity that rest in his characters at their worst. In “Smoke,” a young man is charged by his father to help move a body, and as the backstory becomes more clear, a sense of sad fatedness inhabits both men; they’re pathetic and trapped, yet strangely noble for their awareness of that. The mood is similar in “The Daughter,” where a woman and her daughter are snared into a search for a lost boy last spotted on their cornfield. When their bond slowly takes a gothic turn, it feels at once disarming and inevitable.
Krafton’s exact location is never named, but despite all that corn it has a decidedly Bible Belt-ish cast. A Baptist priest routinely appears, and Heathcock’s prose evokes Biblical cadences, the better to capture the feel of sin and hellfire. “Now and forever I’ll be the man what killed his boy,” thinks the hero of “The Staying Freight,” whose son slipped under his combine. After he runs away from his wife, Heathcock writes, “he wept and listened to the woods come to life and didn’t sleep.” His penance is to find a new town where he becomes a kind of carnival attraction, his taut stomach busting the wrists of those who pay to fight him. (Bonus Bible-study points: One of the men who takes him in is named Ham.) The story is absurdly violent, the man acting out a sadomasochistic fantasy of abasement for his failings. But its absurdity is what makes it so seductive. When the real world finally intrudes on this world of pain and bloodlust, the chief emotion Heathcock evokes is disappointment.