Wednesday, 22 August 2012

One Man's Opinion: VOLT by ALAN HEATHCOCK

What an interesting book Volt (US) is.

Alan Heathcock is a teacher of fiction writing at an American university.  The attributes I imagine would go to making a good teacher of fiction are put on display in this collection and it is clear that the future of creative writing is safe for another generation.

That said, I do have a slightly mixed reaction to Volt.

The first three pages should be enough to convince any reader that they’ve made a good decision with their selection.  The power of it demonstrates just how to open a story.  And it moves on from there in a way that reeled me in without problem.  It tells of how Winslow Nettles deals with tragedy in his life in gripping fashion, the man sinking to depths most writers wouldn’t be able to imagine and certainly not execute in such a skilled fashion.  ‘The Staying Freight’, then, is an amazing opening.

And it gets better.

‘Smoke’ has a father and son bonding in a way that most family will hopefully never get to experience. 

‘Peacekeeper’ is better still, with a time-jumping piece that shifts back and forth to reveal the story of a missing girl. 

‘Furlough’ is the icing on the cake for me.  It’s my favourite here and is about a modern-day war veteran trying to find his feet. 
Here’s a little of Furlough.  Jorgen is telling the girl he’s escorting about his pet:

“I got a bird,” he said.
“A bird?”
“A little parakeet.”
“What’s she called?”
Jorgen felt uneasy.  “Don’t know,” he said.”Never called it nothing.”  Mary Ellen smacked his shoulder.  Laughed like he’d told a joke.  He watched her mouth, the white of her teeth, the gap in the front.  “Tried to set it free today, but it wouldn’t go.”
“Bet you treat it well.”
“It don’t say one way or the other.”
“It didn’t fly off,” she said.  “That’s how it says.
“I guess.”
“You might be too nice for my cousin,” Mary Ellen said.  “She’d eat you alive.”
“I ain’t that nice.”

Which is such a fine demonstration of who Jorgen is and adds to the sense of building menace of the story.

And there’s some beautiful description to illuminate the darkness of the work which acts as a counterpoint to the blunt overall style.  Try this picture of a building fire on for size:

‘In the lane, oil lapped tiny spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds.’


When put together with the final story, these four make a collection that is just about perfect. 

In between them, however, are a handful of stories which didn’t do it for me. 
All the ingredients seemed to be there – the bleak outlook, the potency of individual sentences, the extremely well-written characters and the odd angles at which we get to see them – it’s just that I didn’t connect to them for some reason.  They felt a little long.  I didn’t quite get the meaning behind them.   Felt they ended without the emotional kick of the others. 

I suspect that my issues with these few entries might put me in the minority of opinion – you’ll just have to read them and find out for yourselves, for read them you must if you are on the lookout for really talented authors.

For the stories I loved, there’s no way I can offer any other review summary other than 5 stars. 

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