This is a grey and difficult book. Set in a fictional town called Krafton, somewhere in what I imagine is Idaho or a nearby state, the eight linked stories that comprise Volt are deadpan in the face of death–accidental, in combat, murder, more murder–flood, fire, war, revenge, old age, tough decisions and huge mistakes. This litany of disturbing plot points recur in some combination, and occasionally all together, in each story. A great proportion of the deaths in the book involve children: as the victims, as unwitting co-conspirators, as future perpetrators. But while nearly everything that happens in these stories is awful, the prose is quietly next-to-perfect in its precision, specific voice, interesting syntax and subtlety.

The first story starts with a man accidentally plowing over his young son. Somewhere in the middle of that story, the same man ends up as an attraction in a freak show–an unexpected but, in the context of the story, believable turn of events. In another story, kids steal bowling balls from a ruined bowling alley and bowl them down a hill into a town, smashing windows and knocking up against statues as the town’s oblivious residents all watch one of their own compete in a pageant. A third story finds a mother and daughter picnicking in the center of a corn maze. These are particular, stunning images.

The relentlessly bleak, violent thread that links these stories did not fully win me over. There are a few–especially “The Daughter,” which involves three generations of women and several terrible tragedies and “Peacekeeper,” one of the several stories involving Helen Farraley, the town sheriff  elected as a joke but doing her best–that are just so miserable I almost wish I’d never read them. I don’t shy away from upsetting subject matter, usually, but these were exceptionally brutal in a way that made me feel diminished rather than enriched when I finished reading them. I think this has to do with my particular threshold–there are books I’ve read and loved that others have felt this same way about, and I’m sure this book doesn’t quite needle at a lot of people as it did me.

Heathcock’s prose is outrageously good, though. I want to read the book again to pull from the stories some of what I missed while cringing, but also to learn from his sentences.

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