by Weston Cutter
Because it’s a month in which a Jim Shepard collection’s to be released, it’s easy to assume that his You Think That’s Bad will be the best collection of short stories released this month. Actually, that might be foolish: I don’t want to posit any of this as something competitive. Here’s what I mean: Jim Shepard’s got a new book, and it’s being released near the end of March (two days after an incredible person’s birthday, one day before another incredible person’s birthday), and for those of us who’ve been reading contemporary American fiction for the last decade plus, we know that a book by Shepard is one of the best gatherings of fiction there will be this year. A book by Shepard has, at this point, become akin to a book by Munro—both authors are almost mind-bogglingly consistent and their stories are, at very best, trap doors through which the reader gladly falls and, through falling, understands or realizes or sees the world anew. That sounds lofty, but it’s true, as anyone who’s read Munro or Shepard can easily back up (for the record: I interviewed the man when his last book hit).
Here’s what else, though: if you enjoy short American fiction, you’re in for a hell of a month. Because not only do you get Shepard’s new one (which, yes, features his National Magazine Award winning “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” and also “Boys Town,” that recent devastator from the New Yorker), but you get Alan Heathcock’s Volt, which has to be one of the best debut collections in the last five years. I mean this 100%: any reader with an ounce of sense would have to include Volt when talking about recent biggies (I don’t want to be critical, but Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was, yes, a great book, but putting Volt next to it makes it seem thinner somehow, paler).
Here’s how a genius book begins: “Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking.” Here’s what I’d like to make abundantly clear regarding “The Staying Freight,” Volt’s opening story and my vote for the year’s best (an excerpt of which is here): the story’s title is a trick, or at least is engaged in multiple entendres, because you, as well as the story’s characters, will be dealing with the freight of that single story for awhile. You will. On finishing it I tried to remember the last story that stuck—clung, really—so fast and hard inside my head. It’s hard to think of many this good.
What’s so great about Volt, anyway? Surely it’s not enough two just quote to sentences and shuffle off, meaning hopefully transmitted. Here’s what’s astonishing:
: The faux-McCarthy voice—flattened, relatively comma-free, thick with casual ferocity—is one of the easiest-going masks fiction writers can pull. Good, hard readers and writers can discover for themselves, quickly, the limits of taking that model of voice out without knowing exactly how to execute it perfectly. Heathcock’s voice certainly has elements of that bristling, sedimentary tenor (opening at random: “Tonight her hands shook as she laced her boots, lost in the throes of a more desperate ache, an unsettled yearning to be apart from all things human.” That’s from “The Daughter,” p. 125), but he lacks the studied bleakness of the imitators. If McCarthy’s voice is an attempt to find the tiny morsels of meat left on the bones of things, Heathcock’s works to find the meat of the bones themselves. I don’t know if that comes across right, but read the book and get back to me.
: There’s no “trick” story in Volt; there’s nothing meta or envelope-puncturing at work. This isn’t to say the book’s stuffily serious—it’s serious, but not stuffy. But it doesn’t…I don’t know. I’ve read lots lately, and there seems, in lots of books (I’ve done it, too), some moment in collections where silliness can be allowed. And silliness is fine, but Volt feels serious as a worn tire, as cast iron. There’s nothing silly about the book.
: And the book’s seriousness? It’s wrestling with actual morals, with how people do/can/should make their ways through the world. I won’t say much more than that, other than this: the reason Tobias Wolff stories hang so long for lots of us is because the stories are more than just interesting fictions about imaginary people: the end of, say, “The Night in Question” damn near demands the reader ask him/herself what s/he’d do in the book’s scenario. In other words, the best stories (I’ll claim) ask us not just to empathize and find interest in these fake people, but force us to ask real questions of our own systems. Seriously: every single one of Heathcock’s stories do this. I envy the fuck out of every writer that can do this.
There’s more, but if you’re not convinced by now to pick up Volt (it’s $15! That’s two movie tickets, jackass! What, you think a Beiber biopic’s more worth your time?), you’re a lost cause. Read Volt raptorously and, of course, hope desperately that Heathcock’s even now thick into his next batch of mind-blowers.