I had an interesting sensation this morning as I left my commuter train and made the six-block walk to my office. During the commute I started reading Volt, the debut short story collection by Chicago native Alan Heathcock. The first story, “The Staying Freight”, is set (as apparently are all of the others in the book) in the rural American West, and right away I was drawn in by the protagonist’s domestic tragedy and his sudden and not-quite-explained departure from home. He walks on and on, first through remote yet cultivated farms and finally to wilderness, growing ever more feral and savage along the way. By t he time my train arrived and I had to stop reading, a chance encounter has thrust him partly back to civilization as he takes a job at a turkey farm.
Though I was fully aware of my surroundings as I read – a packed train car chugging through dilapidated city neighborhoods – I was still so immersed in the story that when I got off the train, it felt disorienting to be walking city sidewalks, obeying stoplights and surrounded by honking cars and office workers scurrying toward their desk jobs. Heathcock totally immersed me in his rural physical setting, and though the story is gritty and not terribly pleasant, I almost found myself longing to be there instead of having another ordinary day at the office. The story feels palpably real.
This feeling contrasts sharply with the last two books I’ve read, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Charles Dickens’ Great Expecations, which I labored through from June through mid-September during my annual Summer of Classics. Though I enjoyed both books (Hardy much more than Dickens), reading them felt more like observing relics in a museum than experiencing the vivid reality of “The Staying Freight.” And I don’t feel like my Hardy/Dickens distance problem is simply something that’s inherent to all classics of bygone eras – one of the best classics I’ve read during these past summers is O.E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927), a Norwegian pioneer epic set in South Dakota that is as far removed from my personal experience as the lives of Hardy’s Jude and Dickens’ Pip, and just as densely written. Yet I enjoyed Rölvaag much more than either Hardy or Dickens, because it felt real to me. Just as real as Heathcock’s story.