4/5 Graywolf Press The opening line of Heathcock’s story ‘Peacekeeper’ reads: ‘Spring 2008: There were more direct routes to the Odd Fellows Hall, on a dry knob north of town, but Helen Farraley could not see below the muddy floodwater, couldn’t risk wrecking the boat on a tree or chimney or telephone pole.’ It heralds what’s in store for most of these stories: a no-nonsense style full of broken-down characters facing a bleakness of place (the American West) and heart.
In ‘Smoke,’ 15-year-old Vernon is awakened, hung over, by his father looming over him with a mangled arm held together by a home-made stitching job. After an exhausting hike through the woods, they come upon a dead body wrapped in his parents’ bedspread. Vernon’s father killed the man during an altercation, after the guy pulled a knife and stabbed him.
Now hallucinating from a loss of blood, he and Vernon drag Mr Augusto (the father insists on calling him by his name) into a cave to hide the body. It’s an intensive study in grief and accountability, as Vernon’s dad won’t allow himself off the hook.
The opening story, ‘The Staying Freight,’ is the true centrepiece. A farmer accidentally kills his son as he tills the fields. Unable to articulate anything afterwards, he wanders miles from home, eventually landing a strange gig on stage as a ‘wild man’ who can take any punch. Like several of the stories here, it reads like the origin story for a campfire tale, but instead of fear as the animating emotion, it’s laced with inscrutable grief.