I first heard about Alan Heathcock’s Volt when Eric Rickstad mentioned it to me, and JR has recently reinforced his good opinion. The debut story collection is really drawing the kind of reviews and raves that I can’t help but take note. The stark realism, the brutal lyricism – it’s just the kind of thing I’ve been waiting for. More fine work from our friends at Graywolf Press. Here’s Alan with his memories of the book that made him love reading.
When We Fell In Love by Alan Heathcock
It all started with a pig.
I did not take easily to books. I wasn’t much of a reader. I had bad eyes, was generally fidgety, and unlike my older brother who seemed to endlessly read books by Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock and Stephen King, all I wanted to do was shoot baskets in the driveway or ride bikes through our neighborhood in Hazel Crest, in the southland area of south Chicago. But what I didn’t know was that a burgeoning awareness of the world had blossomed in me, even as youngster. Questions became fears, and as I played the tough games of tough children very adult preoccupations struck my conscience. It’s harder to say exactly where this awareness came from, though I remember seeing two men fist-fight in Angelos Pizzaria, remember the brutality of it, the rings on a big man’s fists, the other on the floor, me trapped against a juke box. I remember my brother being beaten up by a gang of teenagers on a cold Chicago day, guys twice my brother’s size pushing his face into a snow bank and cracking slabs of ice over his head. I remember my father having major heart surgery, remember the relatives all convening at our house on the day of the operation, the sense that something big was happening. I could go on. The point is that these events, and others, had accumulated a potent presence inside of me.
I felt quite surprised to be crying when reading Charlotte’s Web. I still have the copy of the book from my childhood, its pages yellowed, the back cover torn in half. On the front cover is an illustration of a little girl, a worried looking little pig in her arms, a goose at one elbow, a sheep at the other, a spider dangling above them all. I can only guess what the bark-kneed ten-year old jock version of myself thought of it, this baby book, this silly tale about girls and farm animals. But I found myself deeply taken by the plight of the little pig, a runt named Wilbur. From the moment of his birth, everything was set up against Wilbur, and only by a few fortuitous bounces did he live at all. And even then, author E.B. White did not shy away from the harsh truths of the Wilbur’s world. Pigs were killed. Pigs would become bacon and ham for the farmer’s table. Wilbur would die. The bitter old sheep told Wilbur they were fattening him for slaughter and the spider, a kind soul named Charlotte, assured him it was true.
“I don’t want to die!” screamed Wilbur, throwing himself to the ground.”
And I desperately did not want Wilbur to die, and the runt pig inside me threw himself to the ground and screamed, too. It was a profound moment for me, and I cried for Wilbur, not yet knowing I was crying for myself.
The best of what literature can do for us is to allow us to face ourselves, but in a way that’s bearable. Story can strike us at the buried and otherwise impenetrable core of those things which make us afraid, make us ashamed, make us swoon and question, make us imagine, and understand, the world in new ways. My wife is a fifth grade teacher and we’ve talked often about the role of the teacher being that of curator, of knowing the vast spectrum of books and suggesting books to students that might allow them to have this deep and meaningful interaction with the written word. Lifetime readers are generally made by those moments that the best of books can provide, that awakening, deep and visceral, striking our emotions and intellect and imaginations, the interaction of our inner selves with the written word.
Ever since that day I read about Wilbur and his desperate pursuit to stay alive, I have been chasing the dragon of the profound effect the written word had on me. In high school, after one of my friends committed suicide, I found myself weeping when reading Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp”. In that story, a boy accompanies his father, a doctor, to an Indian camp, where a woman is in great pain, screaming while trying to give birth. The woman’s husband is so distraught at the sounds of his wife’s screams that he kills himself. Our young protagonist asks his father, “Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?” The question was mine, of course, the answer sobering. Yet I was better for the experience, the catharsis of looking directly inside myself facilitating a way to shed light over the darkest questions.
A long string of selfsame experiences have followed, confronting vanity with James Joyce, faith with Flannery O’Conner, brutality with Joyce Carol Oates and Truman Capote, lonesomeness with Sherwood Anderson, fatherhood with Cormac McCarthy. Though one could argue the content has become more complex as I grew older, I would counter that it all falls back to a scared little boy in south Chicago, who was able to face the world a little more courageously because a kindly spider with a penchant for weaving words saved a runt pig from slaughter.