Heathcock is in the tradition of McCarthy and Carver and Steinbeck in the unflinching approach to his characters, here people of an imaginary town called Krafton (I hope it's imaginary because there's far too many murders/suicides/disasters for one place to sustain - flood and fire and death everywhere you look). He gets into their souls and makes you think and feel like them. I had to hold on tight to survive the first couple of stories. You become displaced from your seat on the bus or wherever and are on the tractor that kills Winslow's son on the first page:
Winslow simply didn't see his boy running across the field. He didn't see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweetcorn wrapped in foil. Didn't see Rodney's boot slide off the hitch...
...He whirled to see what he'd plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.
(Icarus, and there are other classical allusions, eg the monster in the maze in The Daughter)
That simple and effective writing [those diminishing sentences saying so much: Winslow simply didn't see; He didn't see; Didn't see..] is there throughout the book. Winslow cannot cope with what he's (accidentally) done and runs off and lives wild in the woods before becoming a kind of freak-show exhibit in an isolated town. At first I thought here's another 'descent' story, like many of Beckett's or Paul Bowles's fabulous 'A Distant Episode', and it does follow that trajectory, but then it goes beyond that and into a kind of redemption, a sliver of hope for the poor man. You are glad for him. In the next story there is another death, gradually revealed and how a father and son cope with it, how they physically go about the task, gives the story a kind of hyper-reality, lurching and sickening, but it comes with a great depth of feeling (and insight) for the boy. The third, well this has more of the same, again about how people react and cope with death and destruction, how they defend morally (to themselves mainly) their actions. This latter has a woman sheriff out of her depth (not because she is a woman I hasten to add) trying to cope with several tough things - a flood and looters and child abduction. There is some similarity to 'Fargo' in the set up here, and throughout you get touches and flavours of American stories and novels you know, but Heathcock adds his own special intensity. His town is full of the inarticulate or partially articulate up against an indifferent landscape and the full force of weather and human appetite and stupidity, or just plain error and misunderstanding. Through his words you get inside their skins in a unique way.
The book should be read in order as characters appear throughout the book and build on what you know about them previously (although they all stand up as separate pieces too). This is particularly true of Helen, the sheriff I mentioned - she appears in several stories and you follow her development as she attempts to administer justice and deal with criminal families, and this all comes together in the wonderful title story, the last in the book.
There were a couple of things that niggled - I got a bit lost in the long story 'The Daughter', but that was probably just me. The other thing was the dates - in the flood story we are told it is 2007 and 2008, yet there are very few references to modern life or culture - eg mobiles (cell phones I think they're called in the US), and the film stars that are mentioned, eg Roy Rogers and Trigger and Shirley Temple are from way back, so I was a bit confused there. Apart from that all I have to say is this is a truly stunning collection, one of those that comes along only once in a while and my advice for those that love short stories is to buy it now.