Winner of the 2012 Whiting Award and Finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize, Alan Heathcock’s Volt is a book of linked short stories whose characters struggle to reconcile their private pains with their values and communal identity. The fictional town of Krafton contains grotesque violence, yet it is a town that transcends the trauma of its inhabitants because of the larger ties that bind the townspeople together: "...the grace of Krafton came with the seasons, sowing, reaping, breeding an understanding that last year has no bearing on this one; this crop might be better, or worse, and regardless there’ll be another and then another. In this there was only the future and diligent work, and not emotion but movement, just as the rain falling or crops sprouting was not emotion" (33-34).
This practical and organic compassion for the human condition represents the ethos of Heathcock’s work: “I’m interested in how people work their way back from that darkness and heal themselves.”
Despite his emphasis on the theme of healing and consolation, Heathcock’s use of religion is never dogmatic. Religion is part of the defiant tissue with which the people of Krafton struggle against the insupportable. However, religion is no panacea in the grim crucible of this gothic small town. Vernon’s father in “Smoke” despairs of redemption and burdens his son with the contagion of murderous guilt (“This thing we done, Vernon” 59). Similarly, Miriam in “Daughter,” involves her daughter in the cover-up of a murder, and then she aims to protect herself and her daughter from the consequences: “it felt like victory, for they remained. They were still here while others were gone” (162). Familial ties in Krafton bind stronger than conventional authority, whether of the law or of religion. These are clannish bonds forged by crime, guilt, expiation, and endurance.
Family is not the only alternative strategy to religion for healing and community identity that Heathcock presents. It’s class sympathy that breaks through the disciplined authority of Krafton’s sheriff, Helen Farraley, and assails her sense of self during her confrontation with the Delmores in the eponymous and final story, “Volt.” Heathcock shows Helen suffering with this split identity, the peacemaker of official law and the woman of the truckbeds, quarries, and caves who is betraying her people, just as she betrayed her social values by putting her mother in a convalescent home. It’s an effective rebuke when Mrs. Delmore chastises Helen in those terms, demanding what Helen, the sheriff, will do to her son when she catches him for his missing court date: “Then what? Put him away like you done your mama?” (198).
The description of Helen’s reaction after she is verbally and physically struck by Winnie Delmore is significant: “Helen stumbled a step backward, touched her stinging jaw. Then she felt a collapsing, a weight in her chest, the gravity of her swollen heart. Her nostrils quivered. Her eyes melted. She couldn’t let hem see her cry” (198). The physical actions are clearly presented, paced in short declarative phrases. But then in between her “stinging jaw” and when her “nostrils quivered,” Heathcock refers to Helen’s grief in abstract terms that are also tangible in their emotional precision. Connecting the word “gravity” to “heart” in this context helps to coalesce the totality of Helen’s experience, as though she stands as a microcosm for all of Krafton, inevitably pulling in the chaos of small-town dysfunctional lives around her, like a black hole or vortex of disintegration, paradoxically concentrating the larger scope of human pain into her poignant personal pain. It’s a simple moment on the surface of the description, perhaps easily missed, and it exemplifies the careful art of Heathcock to construct characters and situations that gather profound dignity of expression through their interactions with the other denizens of Krafton.
Volt is haunting throughout with lyrical and chiseled prose. Heathcock’s stark images merge concrete details with abstractions and avoid conventional perspectives. His descriptions resonate with the characters’ moods, but the symbolic tinctures are nothing so unwieldy as a pretentious pathetic fallacy or sententious explication. In Volt the whole world looms up from one small but indelible town.
 Heathcock qtd. in Bonnie Blankinship, “Heathcock Lights Up Literary World.” Zoom News.
Alan Heathcock. Volt. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 2011. 207 pages. $15.00, paper.