The Heart of Nothing Much That Mattered
Alan Heathcock’s stories are linked by the town of Krafton—where missing teenagers hang from trees and all anyone wants to do is get out.
Tired of the noise and headache of living in a big city? Looking to relocate to a small, quiet town? One where everybody knows everybody, and where you might smell a fresh-baked pie sitting on a window ledge on a spring day? If so, allow me to suggest Krafton, the Anywhere, U.S.A., setting for Alan Heathcock’s new collection of stories, Volt. That is, unless an average of one murder per every four households makes you uneasy.
Never mind the grim goings on in Krafton: One man kills his son in a farming accident, another kills someone for not moving their truck on a narrow road, the local law enforcement finds one of the town girls murdered in the woods, and the preacher lost his faith when his son didn’t come back from the war. It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise: Krafton has a movie theater!
“Fort Apache” is the lightest piece in this collection of stand-alone stories. It’s a snapshot of reckless (for the era) teenage shenanigans, in which a pack of adolescents and a recently returned WWII vet treat their boredom by nosing around the bowling alley, which has just burned down, and then catching the Duke in his latest starring role:
John Wayne cantered his horse through a pass lined with Apaches, their faces painted for war. Walt stood and the screen went dark. The crowd catcalled up. Hep punched his thigh. The projector’s beam lay warm on Walt’s neck, and he knew they’d all been plucked from danger and love, from another time, another place, and set back into this dark, sticky-floored theater, in the heart of nothing much that mattered.
Westerns aren’t your thing? Not to worry, Krafton also boasts first-class contact sports. In “The Staying Freight,” Winslow copes with guilt over the death of his son, and the chaotic effects of his own violent disposition, by having people pay to fight him. For the lucky would-be Krafton residents out there, this is a good sign: One man’s self-destructive tendencies keep the local economy flowing and provide an amazing spectacle all at the same time:
The crowds grew, and Ham cornered off a stage with chicken wire mounted with trouble lights. Winslow stood bare-chested in the harsh light. Ham, in an ill-fitting suit, a felt hat adorned with turkey feathers, rang a bell and shouted, ‘Our world’s turned polite, some might say dainty. We all know how things used to be, men uprooting trees with their hands and backs, women fighting off panthers with hairpins and a mother’s scorn. Those days are gone, my friends,’ and he paused, eyeing them all. ‘Yet you still got that rage inside you, don’t you? Don’t you? Well, that’s why you’re here. Who’ll start us at a hundred even?’
If that’s not quite enough to make you box up your stuff and rent a U-Haul, then rest assured that, should you decide to move to Krafton, town officials and the citizens alike take their civic responsibilities very seriously. Take Helen, Krafton’s sheriff and the protagonist of “Peacekeeper,” who worked in Freely’s General for ten years before being elected to office. When a teenage girl’s body is discovered in the woods, the sheriff is fast on the scene:
The girl’s toes dangled inches from the ground. She wore only shoes. Clunky black shoes with square heels. Her naked skin glowed white against the dusk. Her mouth hung open and what little light came through the saffron boughs gleamed in her braces. Helen took off her own coat. She tried throwing the jacket up over the girl’s shoulders, but it slid off and fell in a lump on the ground.
It was the girl. Jocelyn Dempsy, whom everyone called Jocey. She raced motorbikes on a dirt track by the old mill, played JV basketball as an eighth grader. She loved Moon Pies. Loved cherry cola. She’d come to the grocery and buy them, and Helen would watch her eat alone by the road and return the bottle for a nickel before riding off.
Heathcock’s choice of setting gives Volt the thin thread that holds these stories together. With “Fort Apache” taking place in 1948, and “Peacekeeper” set in the winter of 2008, the collection is a kind of longitudinal case study of a town and its citizens. Krafton has never had much to offer its people, but they’ve tried to make the best of it—at least until they’re suffocated by their own longing to get out.
It’s decades of restlessness that have brought Krafton to its present state, and Volt is a chronicle of its implosion. Anyone who lives in a town like the one described here can appreciate Heathcock’s ability to define a place using singular, ill-fitting details that can be missed at first glance, but when revisited, show the promise of a life lived anywhere else. Sure, the world of these stories is bleak, but anyone from a place like Krafton will be reminded of how thankful they are that they’ve moved away.