Monday, August 29, 2011

Moral History

Two books that shock the conscience

One of the true joys of my existence is when the universe conspires to bring me two profound books on a single theme. Like variations on a haunting, timeless melody, William Vollman’s sweeping Central Europe and Alan Heathcock’s explosive Volt both explore the moral history of a place through multiple characters’ experiences.

It doesn’t matter whether the place is real—Central Europe’s World War II era German and Soviet frontline—or imagined—Krafton, Alan Heathcock’s quirky and quintessential Midwestern town that never was (but that every American will recognize). These authors have laid out with painstaking craft and heartbreaking skill the conditions that exist in the ever-shifting every-man’s land that exists between good and evil, right and wrong, joy and sorrow.  And in both books, the settings are as much a character as the morally ambiguous creatures who inhabit them.

Vollman’s book found me, as most of my books do, in a thrift store a few years ago, shortly after I had returned from a trip to Hungary and shortly before my marriage of 13 years ended in the emotional equivalent of the Dresden firebombing. Despite the fact that Central Europe had won a National Book Award, it somehow ended up at the back of my book queue, only to emerge in January of this year.

Central Europe is a loosely connected collection of novellas and short stories, all sharing a common theme, and all telling the story of World War II through the eyes of artists who lived through it: Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, filmmaker Roman Karmen, artist Kathe Kollwitz, poet Anna Akhmatova; and military commanders who fought it (the last German Field Marshall Paulus, Soviet General and defector Vlasov, and most hauntingly, SS Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein, who acted as a “witness for God” to the atrocities of the Holocaust). 

An anonymous first person narrator(s), possibly KGB and/or German Intelligence, connects each story, as does the elusive and lovely Elena Konstantinovskaya—Roman Karmen’s real-life wife, for whom Vollman imagines a love triangle with Shostakovich—and the sagas of Siegfried and Parzival that shaped Germany’s national conscience (and Hitler’s uncompromising, cruel regime).  “Parzival killed the Red Knight for us. In our name, bloodstained tank treads will soon grind down the corn. Tod wird als Freund erkannt.[i] Don’t shun the shock! Grind out more gold for him! He knows how to make it red,” Vollman’s narrator (in German uniform) says.

And later, as a Russian, he remarks sadly, hinting at a failed relationship that is never fully explained, “Once upon a time I found beauty, but beauty left me.” Vollman’s prose is by turns poetic and prosaic (as when he describes the siege of Stalingrad), depending on the needs of his narrative. The strength of his characterization is most evident in the Shostakovich stories, including a Cold War encounter with the American piano prodigy Van Cliburn. The renowned composer can never complete a thought: “Well, well, well, well. Perhaps we both…But I really…Anyway, their speeches make my ears vomit,” he says to his wife, trying to explain his refusal to join the Communist Party (years later, Shostakovich capitulates).

As Vollman tells it, the moral history of Central Europe is bankrupted by death and destruction, by the firebombing of Dresden, by 20 million Russian civilian and military casualties of World War II and more than six million murdered Jews, and finally, by the utter existential despair captured in Shostakovich’s Opus 110.
“I wanted to tell the moral history of a place,” Boise author Alan Heathcock said at the premiere for his debut short story collection, Volt, published by Graywolf Press this year. Heathcock was explaining the decade-spanning evolution of the all-American town at the heart of his collection. Krafton is so perfectly realized that you can picture yourself standing outside the bar where the deer crashed into the mirror, or shopping at the town’s small grocery, or battling the urge to snooze through one of Pastor Hamby’s sermons.

It’s hard for me to understand why Central Europe is called a novel, while Volt is billed as a short story collection—both books employ a similar narrative structure. Vernon Hamby and town Sheriff Helen Farreley both figure in several of Heathcock’s stories, loosely connecting them thematically. The reader first encounters Hamby as a young boy, sent on a horrifying mission by his father, while Helen embodies the morally ambiguous nature of human existence.

The craft and care that went into these stories is truly breathtaking. But sometimes you read a story or novel and notice the craft first—think Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In Heathcock’s case, the stories function first as stories; the author’s extraordinary command of language and metaphor never overshadows the story itself. My two favorites (which I could argue are essentially the same tale told from different points of view) are “Smoke” and “The Daughter.”

In the first story, the reader meets a 15-year old Vernon Hamby, who learns a harsh truth at a young age when his bloodied father appears outside his window and asks for his help.  “Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men,” Vernon thinks, echoing Vollman’s sentiments. Vernon has a very postmodern encounter with Roy Rogers, who advises the boy to sing a song, “just to smooth off the dark edges.” (I talk to Lawrence of Arabia all the time, so this scene made perfect sense to me).

Young Vernon is left with a moral quandary—how can his father, a “good” man, be responsible for the death of a stranger? “The Daughter” also deals with accidental murder; with careful foreshadowing, Heathcock lays out the circumstances that lead a daughter to cover up her mother’s misdeeds.  “’What we need is a monster for our maze,’ Evelyn said. ‘A monster to gobble up little boys.’” When a child goes missing in a corn maze, no one suspects Evelyn’s mother Miriam.

The tough moral questions are not usually right vs. wrong—it’s wrong vs. wrong that plagues us, with varying degrees of seriousness, throughout our lives. Heathcock deftly flips a switch and shows us our best/worst selves, as negatives, outlined in fierce black and white. A father kills his son. A father kills another father. A woman kills a child molester. Another woman kills a child. A son goes off to war and dies, and his parents, confronted by grief, cannot make sense of the world anymore.  We see ourselves in Krafton’s denizens, and seeing ourselves, we are left afraid, without consolation.

Life is an endless series of peach pies and corn mazes, movies and church picnics. Except when it’s not. “I ain’t well neither,” says Sheriff Helen. “Maybe none of us are.”