It was a case of social media serendipity: when I posted my rave review of Shann Ray’s short story collection, American Masculine, Alan Heathcock tweeted the link in support of the book. I realized Heathcock’s own collection of short stories, Volt, had been enticingly reviewed by Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes. So, moments after becoming “co-followers” (full disclosure!), I went out and bought it and read it and failed utterly to write about it.
Like Trevor, I was pretty bowled over by the first story, “The Staying Freight”—bowled over in just a couple pages really. And for the most part, that kept up. The first story, “The Peacekeeper,” seemed familiar to me and I realized I had read it in one recent year’s volume of Best American Mystery Stories. I had felt its power at the time, and a second reading brought me deeper into the town of Krafton, where many of Volt‘s tale take place, and in closer touch with the characters who populate it.
As more stories are set in Krafton, both in the past and future compared with “The Peacekeeper,” the reader begins to understand better not just the town but also the pattern underlying Heathcock’s stories. If the stories of American Masculine were outright bleakness in a bleak world (albeit with a hint of the sublime), these are more charitably harsh in their realism: earthy, and with always the close, real possibility of danger. Krafton is a small western town where most people have just about what it takes to be comfortable, and many have a bit less. But the economics are more of a backdrop; the emotional, social lives of the characters are in the foreground of the stories, as they try to make families and communities work.
Helen Farraley, the sheriff of Krafton, seems a lonely woman—the only family she has to make work is a mother, too ill to remain at home and staying in a care facility. But she devotes all her energies to the community side of the coin, pulling as much of the woe of Krafton onto herself as she can manage. The title story is the final story in the collection, and it’s one (not the only one) where Helen faces particular difficulties squaring the law with justice with what’s best for the community. By the end, she’s wiped out from the mental and physical effort of it all.
I just need a little rest, she told herself. Just a few minutes to gather myself. Then she imagined God in Heaven just as weary, slouched on his golden throne and deciding to try a smaller flood or two just to see if we’d save ourselves and spare him the effort.
The point here isn’t so much that Helen has delusions of grandeur, although she might—she does raise herself above the laws of men from time to time, after all. Instead, it’s a theme from many of the stories, where the focus is on men and women doing the difficult work—again, physical and emotional—of living with each other, caring for each other, putting up with each other, keeping order among each other, and sometimes learning from each other and improving each other in their humanity.