Volt: Stories

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A Year in Reading: Daniel Orozco

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I feel woefully inadequate as a reader, particularly with regard to keeping up with contemporary writers. Most of my colleagues keep up nicely. They’ll chat me up about a recent great story or essay in The New Yorker. They’ll ask what I thought of A Visit from the Goon Squad or Freedom. They’ve already read A Visit from the Goon Squad and Freedom. Those books just came out, didn’t they? And Freedom is big, and The New Yorker comes every week. Am I that terribly busy, more so than any other writer who also teaches for a living? I don’t think I am. Plus, I have all summer to write and read. Why aren’t I keeping up over the summer? I don’t know! I do own Goon Squad and Freedom, by the way; they’re in my to-read cart, along with books by Edward P. Jones and Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg, and biographies of Wharton and Frost. And a John McPhee book. And Volt by Alan Heathcock. (I’m name-dropping now, compensating for my inadequacy as a reader by trying to convince you that I do read (or at least, earnestly intend to; there are 63 books in that goddamn to-read cart)).

Anyhow, the book I most recently plucked from the cart was Thom Jones’ first story collection, The Pugilist at Rest. This is a re-visitation of Jones for me, having read his work in various magazines and anthologies — back in the day, when I kept up — and remembering…well, frankly, not liking it. I re-visit because it has happened — again and again — that a writer whose work I remember not liking becomes, upon re-reading, a writer I enjoy and admire very much. (This has happened with Alice Munro, Henry James, Nicholson Baker, William Gibson, Carol Bly.)  What I remember about not liking Jones had something to do with the hopped up, motor-mouth narration of the few stories I’d read. Well, The Pugilist at Rest is an entire collection of hopped up, motor-mouth narrations, and the effect of reading all eleven stories was very emotional for me. There is an urgency and a need in this aggregate voice that feels palpably human, and vulnerable. Some of his narrators are deluded, arrogant assholes, but man, do they try (and fail) not to be — talking their way through their story, telling it and confessing it and laying it all out (trying to!) no matter how awful it makes them look. What is remarkable to me in reading these stories is the sense of this voice haranguing and hauling me into the fictional world. I’ve never felt more present as an audience while reading a book, never more fully engaged in the mysterious exchange that can occur between reader and writer — I’m being somehow appealed to, in the most intrusive and nakedly honest away. A story is just words on a page, and for a writer to extract such an emotional response from a reader via his  arrangement of words on a page — that’s a very great writer.

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A Year in Reading: Michael Schaub

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In a promotional video for The Great Frustration, Seth Fried’s debut book, the author deadpans, “Technically, the book is a collection of short stories. Though I prefer to think of it as a novel that doesn’t make any sense. [Pause.] That is how we’re marketing it.” On his “Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog,” he fantasizes about ditching literary fiction to become an advertising copywriter hawking “Seth Farm Pigeon Butter” (“the pigeon butter that’s a smidgen better”); and urges fans who want to help sales of The Great Frustation to “social media the book with social media.” And before Hurricane Irene, he offered some (good) advice to New York apartment dwellers by way of a hilarious tweet which ended up going viral.

Fried, 28, is one of the funniest writers in America. But it’s not just his sly, absurdist sense of humor that makes him an author to watch — his short stories manage to be both hilarious and tragic, both surreal and enormously sensitive. The Great Frustration is a debut, but it’s also something most writers, even the most acclaimed ones, have never accomplished: it is a perfect short story collection. It’s also the best book I read in 2011.

Too often, fiction written by very funny people can turn either frivolous or precious, but Fried’s stories never even come close to trivial. He’s a brilliant humorist — see “The Frenchman,” one of the funniest stories I’ve read in years — but he doesn’t use jokes where they don’t belong, and he never uses humor to show off, or to avoid tragic conclusions that many authors would rather not face.

Humor isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal. Fried has a keen sense of history and science, which he uses to great effect in stories like the heartbreaking “The Misery of the Conquistador” and the uniquely beautiful “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those stories someday end up in a definitive anthology of American fiction; they’re that good.) Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before.

I should mention some of the other great books I read in 2011. This year brought some amazing fiction — Alan Heathcock’s dark, beautiful short story collection Volt, and the brilliant novels Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and, especially, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas. I was happy to read two wonderful essay collections, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, and You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone (who, like Fried, is also a gifted humorist). And the books The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean were shining examples of flawless nonfiction. And finally, this was the year that I promised myself I would catch up on the classics I’ve missed, and read Bleak House.

I did not. Here’s to 2012.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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After the Violence, Life: Alan Heathcock’s Volt

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In a recent Publisher’s Weekly interview Alan Heathcock, author of the debut story collection Volt, stated, “I thought long and hard about pursuing a career as a police officer, and separately as a minister. The police officer in me told me I was too blunt/curt to be an effective minister, and the minister in me told me I was too forgiving to be an effective police officer. I became a writer, in part, because it was the only significant profession that allowed both sides of my personality to exist and be expressed.”

This explains a lot, as much about this Chicago native’s stories get their initial thrust from violent acts, both accidental and murderous, and soon involve pastors and the police, the pastors helping victims to find peace, the law officers often instilling a sense of justice that goes far beyond “blunt.”

Volt, set primarily in the fictional Midwest town of Krafton and dipping into different decades of the 20th century, evokes Tim Gautreaux’s Same Place, Same Things, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, Breece D’J Pancake’s Stories, and at times Eudora Welty and Annie Proulx. Raw, emotional, and provocative stories grounded in prose that is both clear and poetic, with plots that sweep toward the biblical.

Much has been made of the violence in Volt, and surely Alan Heathcock knows violence well. But what he knows better is that violence, even murder, is not the greatest wrong one can commit. The wrongs that follow the violence disturb and instruct in ways violence alone cannot. Heathcock also understands, as do his characters, that violence creates a rift that separates one’s past life from one’s future life; one’s previous self from a new self yet to be formed.

“The Staying Freight” sets the tone when Winslow, a farmer who is “thirty-eight and well respected”, accidentally kills his son with his plow. The simplicity and acuity with which the act is captured stops one cold. “Winslow simply didn’t see the boy running across the field. [He]… whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.” The reader’s shock is soon replaced by a gnawing longing to undo what cannot be undone.

It’s how Winslow responds that concerns Heathcock and grips the reader. Winslow later accidentally harms his wife then leaves the house for, as he writes in a note, “…a walk. Be back soon.” The “walk” turns into a flight from home as he cannot bear to return, thinking, “Now and forever I will be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife.” But those were accidents. The greater wrong is that he makes the choice to keep venturing farther from his wife with each new step, leaving her alone in her own grief. What befalls Winslow is a tale of near fable proportions, grounded in a realism that keeps you with Winslow, hoping he makes it home.

In one story an act of murder by tire iron pales beside the murderer’s subsequent action to involve his son in the grotesque cover up. In another story, the violence glimpsed at the end is not as villainous as the lengths a young soldier on furlough goes to manipulate a friend into exacting that violence and to trick a girl into witnessing it.

But if Volt is rife with violence and its aftermath, it is tempered with quiet reflective moments, and a pair of subtler stories where violence is in the background or rises to no greater offense than a quiet boy punching another boy for being called a queer. There is the backdrop of a gorgeous yet harsh natural world, where blue skies quickly turn cloudy and rains fall so hard that floods change the course of lives. The violence is also balanced against other characters lucky enough to have escaped violence; folks such as the pastors and shop owners and farmers who live within the law and long for order, understanding, faith, and community.

In “The Daughter”, a woman named Miriam loses her elderly mother to violence during the commission of another crime. Afterward, Miriam, who lives alone on a farm, has a maze created in her corn field and spends her time apart from the others in town as she has “an unsettled yearning to be apart from all things human.” When her college-age daughter returns home to care for her, the story takes as many strange twists as the maze itself and you wonder which of the two women the daughter of the title is. If we can glean anything from these stunning stories it is that each of us is a daughter or son, father or mother, brother or sister. None of us is apart from the other. When a pastor says to Miriam, “You’re not alone,” Miriam insists “Sometimes you are.” But the pastor gets the last word: “That’s not true. Not ever.” It is when we behave as though we are alone that the trouble starts. And once it starts, it is without end as it echoes in our bones the rest of our days.

Heathcock understands this. To understand is one thing, to write such unflinching and harrowing stories about it with such grace and empathy is another. These are truly singular, fully American stories; about violence, yes, but more so in the end about faith, forgiveness, and community. About life. Not death. Written whole by a gifted writer.

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