Have you ever picked up a book because every where youturn people have it tucked under their arm or are reading it in the park or on the bus? That every review you read (and reviewed by people you absolutely respect without question.) was a glowing love letter to the brilliance of this author’s work? And because of all this exposure and praise, you run to the bookstore and pick up said book and dive into it head long only to be, well…underwhelmed?
Of course you have.
The Da Vinci Code, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, any of the Harry Potter or Twilight books, all of these novels had a HUGE public build up and when I read them (Except the Twilight books—sorry, folks, I just can’t get into vampires that aren’t half rotted animals ala 30 Days of Night.) I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. Okay, in the case of ALL of the novels listed above because I could only get through the first 100 pages before throwing in the towel.
But maybe that’s just the way my brain works when it comes to hype? Maybe I’m conditioned to reject any book, movie, or piece of music that is too universally praised?
It’s a handicap, I know, and one that more than a few people other than me suffer from and over the years it’s stopped me from enjoying some truly great pieces of art.
Now, was this my reaction to Volt by Alan Heathcock?
To be honest, at first, it was.
Review after review (including a glowing piece in the New York Times by Donald Ray Pollack) was filled with boundless accolades.
All of my buddies raved about the collection.
And did all of this cause me to rush to the bookstore and shell out my cash for Volt and immediately start in on it? You bet!
Then I read this in the opening story, “The Staying Freight”:
“Winslow didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.”
Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.”
These two brief paragraphs stopped me cold. They made me walk into my office and place Volt on the shelf and try to put it out of my head. It also made me think that both Volt and Heathcock were nothing more than unadulterated hype.
Hype with a capital H.
Was this fair of me to pre-judge a book after only a half a page?
It was and after two weeks, I returned to it and muscled through “The Staying Freight” and the rest of Volt with those two paragraphs wriggling around in my brain like two fatted worms.
Let me finally get around to why I found the aforementioned paragraphs so disturbing? As you may or may not know, I have a five year old daughter and I’ve had nightmares very similar to those two stripped down paragraphs. (Not exactly like it, but, you know, I don’t live on a farm) I think most parents share those same terrors when they have small children. They’re so reckless, so unafraid and we as parents fear that no matter how careful we are, something unimaginable will happen.
But this is the true power of Heathcock as a writer and Volt as a collection.
Heathcock knows our weaknesses. He knows our common fears and is able to put it on paper and use them as a mirror. “The Staying Freight” isn’t the only story which had a similar effect on me. “Peacekeeper” is an excellent fish out of water story of a small town female sheriff who murders a child killer and then fears her crime will be uncovered as her town floods. The blood chilling “Furlough” is the story of a soldier coming back to his hometown and attempting to and failing to reconnect with his old friends and can be easily compared to mid-career McCarthy. My favorite of the collection is “The Daughter”, the story of a daughter who will do anything to help her mother recover from the grief of losing her own mother after she is killed in a hit and run accident.
Each interconnected story is equally devastating and I had to take small breaks in-between them to catch my breath. Heathcock’s prose possesses a plain spoken lyricism much in the same vein as Kyle Minor and Pollack. His descriptions of small town existence are vivid and painstakingly detailed, but not so much that the reader becomes lost in exposition.
Would it be fair for me to say that Volt heralds the arrival of a new major American voice? Yes, I would say so. Heathcock’s gifts are undeniable.
But will I be revisiting “The Staying Freight” anytime soon….? Much like the film Boys Don’t Cry or Styron’s brilliant Sophie’s Choice, there’s no denying their merits, but the memory of each work is still so vivid, so disturbing that I’ll never need to.