|Volt by Alan Heathcock|
(Graywolf Press, 2011)
James Salter, Dusk and Other Stories. Salter is often heralded as one of the greatest composers of prose in American letters. Though I find his sentences to be admirable in their gorgeous simplicity, I feel not enough attention has been given to his incredible gifts as a storyteller. I’ve read and studied the stories “Dirt” and “Dusk” many times, and count the enigmatic and undeniably compelling “Akhnilo” as a perfect study in suspense, and one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read.
Joy Williams, Taking Care. I read this collection when I was a young man deciding what to do with my life, the thought of being a writer a pale flicker behind my left eye. These stories were taut and often brutal and always true and unflinching. I was riveted, delivered into full empathy with these badly behaving characters. Then I read “Winter Chemistry,” which begins as a coming of age story about two girls infatuated with their chemistry teacher, and ends in stunning violence, a story that moved me so deeply that the flicker roiled up into a flame and I knew, closing the book, I must pursue the life of a writer.
Chris Offutt, Kentucky Straight. I’d long been exposed to the warm and cozy stories of Garrison Keillor, stories that didn’t exactly resemble the small towns I’d known, the towns where my family had lived for generations. When I read Kentucky Straight, I was bolstered into not writing the friendly myth of small towns, but to strip away the romantic veneer and expose the truth. Offutt’s stories dealt with religion and violence, grudges and love, all without a single trick of prose, or even the slightest desire to taint the beauty of the unpretty lives of those who reside in these troubled hollows.
Joyce Carol Oates, Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories. While teaching at Boise State University, I had a macho ranch-raised kid declare he never read women writers because they only wrote meek stories about domestic life. To combat his ignorance, I gave him the story “Upon the Sweeping Flood” from the collection of the same name. The story—about a man who drives headlong into a hurricane only to become stuck in a farm-house with a teenage boy and girl—rages with the ferocity of a great storm and ends with possibly the most shocking violence I’ve ever read. It made the ranch-kid eat his hat (and words). Oates has written many great books, and this one, though not discussed as often as her award-winning novels, is, in my opinion, her best work, and deserves to be mentioned as one of the best collections of stories in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Brian Moore, Black Robe. I’m fascinated by “pioneer” stories, stories where characters are stripped away of all community and civility and forced to face the truth of their own humanity. In Black Robe, a young Jesuit missionary must make his way to a mission deep in the northern wilderness. He must endure weeks of traveling through hostile country ruled by the Huron, Iroquois, and Algonkin tribes, his spirit challenged at every bend in the seemingly endless river, at every sleepless night, at every life-threatening confrontation. Redemption is eventually won, in a riveting tribute to courage and faith.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. A virtually plotless novel about an aging pastor, soon to die, delivering his begats in the form of letters to his young son. With this description, I put off reading this novel for a long time. I need action, I thought. I want plot. I need bombast. Yet, what I hadn’t accounted for was a depth of truth telling and wisdom I’d never experience in fiction. Would that be enough to draw me in, to hold me rapt, to alter the way I understood myself as a moral creature in a world that has often felt unquiet? Yes, and yes, and yes. If I can accrue a fraction of the insight Robinson delivers through her character, Pastor John Ames Boughton, then I will have had a life well lived.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road. For me there's Cormac and then all of the rest. I’ve read, and admired, all of his novels, and think several of them to be perfect. His aesthetic accomplishment with Blood Meridian is, I believe, unrivaled, and the depravity of the psychopath in Child of God is as unnerving as anything I’ve ever read. But The Road reads like scripture, making me consider the world anew, striking so deep into my psyche it stirs emotions I’d long denied existed. Inspired into ambition, I finished this novel and immediately began to read it again, knowing that to write a book like The Road would be my life’s work. Onward.Reviewing Volt for The New York Times Book Review, Donald Ray Pollock wrote, “There is no glamour here, no contemporary angst or frivolity; apart from the occasional cellphone, in fact, little of the modern world is apparent. . . Heathcock’s prose, spare and muscular yet poetic, fits the foreboding, God-fearing nature of the stories. “ On NPR Michael Shaub reported, “There's nothing easy about trying to distill tragedy and pain into the space of one short story. In Volt, Heathcock does it eight times, with a remarkable sense of compassion, and a deeply felt understanding of the mechanics of mourning.” Heathcock’s stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, Heathcock teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
- Karen Russell on how Joy Williams writes the unspeakable
- Other “Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Lev Grossman, Adam Levin, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Timothy Schaffert, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emma Straub