Ayad Story Final Revised | Sacrifice | René Girard

Ayad 1 Richard Ayad Professor Walter Hesford English 475 – Story Chronicles 10 May 2011 Volt: An Electrifying Perspective

on Tragedy in Modern America It is not often that an author arrives on the literary scene with as much chutzpah as Alan Heathcock did earlier this year with his story chronicle, Volt. The stories themselves center around the fictional town of Krafton and its inhabitants, specifically as they struggle to cope with violence and tragedy, and what Heathcock calls “the tenuous nature of peace and the pursuit of moral justice” (Heathcock). Each of the eight stories examines a different scenario and a different cast of characters in this town, all struggling with their own trials in the wake of some kind of tragedy. Throughout each story, especially the first three, Volt makes the claim that this tenuous peace in the wake of violence is only attainable through sacrifice and the act of establishing a surrogate victim, a construct analyzed in Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred, and supported in Katherine McClymond's Beyond Sacred Violence. McClymond argues that sacrifice is a form of exchange: “sacrifice must always involve some quality of 'abnegation,' the giving up of something valuable” (5). Girard reinforces this idea by stating that “society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a 'sacrificeable' victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desire to protect” (4). McClymond explains the idea of “contract sacrifice” as established by Marcel Mauss: “Mauss developed a theory of 'contract sacrifice,' in which an individual or community gives small gifts...in exchange for larger gifts” (6). This idea of contract sacrifice infers that the tenuous peace that Heathcock and his characters are in search of is a result of such small sacrifices, in this case, the lives of individuals in order to ensure the peace of the community, or of another individual, implying a

Ayad 2 deflated sense of self-worth in the surrogate victims in each story. Finally, McClymond writes on the three stages of sacrifice, “entry into the sacrificial arena, destruction of the victim, and exit from the arena” (13). She explains that the sacrificial victim is only granted importance in terms of the sacrifice upon entering the sacrificial arena, and that “the killing of the victim is absolutely essential; it is the climactic moment of the drama. In its destruction the victim's nature is fundamentally changed as it moves from the profane world to the sacred world” (14). Both Girard and McClymond have worked to construct and reinforce the idea that it is possible for an individual to sacrifice himself, essentially making himself into the thing of value to be abnegated, in order to take upon himself the violence that Girard mentions, deflecting it away from society or the specific individual that the surrogate victim wishes to protect, and it is in light of this process of sacrifice that each of the first three of Heathcock's stories will be examined. The first story in Volt, “Staying Freight,” begins with a man named Winslow and the accidental killing of his own son in a tractor accident, after which he encounters a strange white-haired man, who accosts him. The tale then follows him as he runs away from home and his wife, and after weeks of travel as a wild man, living off of the land, his jaw is shattered in a hunting accident. He is taken to a hospital, where it is wired shut, and the man responsible for injuring him offers to house him in a shed until he heals in exchange for menial labor. Winslow agrees, and through a strange progression of events, a handful of locals begin to place bets on whether or not they can punch Winslow in the stomach hard enough to knock the wind from him. After several weeks enduring this punishment, after his jaw is healed, the same white-haired man from the woods places a bet, and breaks one of Winslow's ribs. He wakes in the hospital once more, and is returned home to his wife. In order to analyze Winslow's behavior in terms of sacrifice, it is first necessary to identify the initial violent act which is being deflected onto Winslow as a surrogate victim; in this case, the death of his son seems to be the act in question, though there is also a moment in the story in which Sadie,

Ayad 3 Winslow's wife, approaches him to try and comfort him after the death, and Winslow loses control and shoves her to the ground, causing a gash on her forehead. So, I argue also that Winslow is making an effort to save Sadie from himself, as he believes himself to be a violent man at this point, as indicated when he is thinking to himself about leaving. He says that “I'll snap, [Winslow] thought. Hurt Sadie again. I'll just take a day to get my head right. Sadie'll understand. It's for her. For us” (8). Clearly, Winslow is leaving home in order to spare Sadie from himself, and to save their marriage. The first phase of the sacrificial act, “entering the arena,” is Winslow's transformation through his trek in the woods. He hardens his body, becoming impervious to the physical fatigue and blisters, and losing his humanity in the process, as Heathcock writes, “Winslow knew he no longer belonged to the world of men and would forever roam the woods as a lost son of the civil” (11). It is through this journey that Winslow assumes a degree of importance as the sacrificial victim, as he is literally and figuratively preparing himself for the sacrifice to come. The scene with the white-haired man, called “the train man” acts as foreshadowing, as the train man behaves as an agent of the sacrificial act itself, attacking Winslow while he is still on his vehicle, and yelling at him, “'You son of a bitch'...'I'm giving you a taste of your own'” (5). The actual sacrificial act, or “destruction of the victim” as McClymond writes, comes about as the game people make of punching him to try and get him to flinch. He has been prepared physically by his journey, as “his body had evolved. At first he'd always been tired, but now he walked vigorously, all day and without pain. His limbs grew sleek, stomach ribbed with granite...” (10). It is through this physical punishment and the assumption of the title The Wild Man, which Winslow invites upon himself, that he seeks redemption, both for the death of his son and for the injury of his wife. He seeks to be destroyed so that she might be spared his outbursts, and in order to punish himself for killing. Yet, this is not enough, as Winslow is easily able to endure the blows of local men and women in the new community he has found, and so the destruction of the victim is incomplete until the white-haired train

Ayad 4 man appears in the crowd of people placing bets, and strikes Winslow so hard that he collapses, and wakes up in the hospital with a broken rib. His destruction as sacrificial victim complete, Winslow wakes, and the first words he utters are “'Sadie. Call my Sadie--'” (29). Sadie arrives to pick him up and bring him home to his community, and so he leaves the sacrificial arena, transformed forever into something inhuman, as he has given up his humanity in an effort to save Sadie from himself, and to save himself from the grief of burying his own child by fleeing from it. The last words of the story mark the transformation as complete, as Sadie tells him that, like the train-man before him, Winslow had become the agent of his own sacrifice, as “'[Winslow's] hair has turned so white'” (39). The second story in the collection, “Smoke,” begins with a boy of 15 named Vernon, hung over from going drinking and to the movies the night prior, being woken up by his father, who is battered and bruised, and who asks him to help with something. They travel some distance in the forest, and there is a brief interlude in which Vernon's father loses himself among his thoughts, and confuses a conversation he had with his son with one he had had years prior with his own father, when he was a small child. As they arrive at their destination, the two men encounter the body of a man, whom, it is revealed, Vernon's father was responsible for killing accidentally. Vernon is asked by his father to help carry the man up into a safe cave, and is then sent back into the woods to collect wood, so that the body can be burned, and all evidence of the act of murder is erased. While out collecting, Vernon has a daydream/hallucination, in which Roy Rogers, the hero of the movie he'd seen the night prior, appears in front of him and has a conversation with him about why he sings, which he describes as “To take off the dark edges” (54). After this second surreal moment, Vernon returns to the cave with wood and begins the process of burning the body, at which point his father gives him instructions on how to proceed after this is done. He is told to return home and take his mother out to dinner and possibly the movies, and to spend the evening with her. After that is done, Vernon is told, his mother will meet his father, and both of them will disappear. Vernon is to pack his belongings and go to the Baptist church,

Ayad 5 where he is to confess all of the events of this story to Pastor Gould, so the pastor will take him in and “give him a life”. The first interlude identified above, in which the trek is halted by Vernon's father and his hallucinations, is important, as it establishes the theme of war, and the moral struggles a man faces in the face of committing the violent acts of war. The discussion between Vernon and his father is about the first words Vernon spoke when his father returned from the war. His father incorrectly quotes Vernon as having asked as a small child, “Are you my daddy?”, when in fact, Vernon informs his father that he was a grown adolescent when he came home, and that the event “Weren't but a year ago. I was as tall as you. You said, 'you're a mirror to me,' and had me try on your coat and it fit me just right” (44). Vernon's father then realizes that his initial memory had been of himself as a small child, asking his own father the question. Heathcock is deliberately instilling a sense of the eternity of war in this conversation, as Vernon's father's generation confusion only establishes the idea that every generation of men must, at some point, go to war and return to their families. War in this way becomes a metaphor for the loss of innocence that accompanies it, as well as standing on its own as a morally confusing act that troubles Heathcock and Vernon's father alike. There are a number of sacrifices made in this story, though the sacrifices made by Vernon's father are of somewhat lesser importance than the ones made by Vernon, as he is the central character of the story, and the one with the greatest transformation through it. The father is obviously giving up his life, his home, and his son, in an effort to protect himself and his family from the legal consequences of killing a man, and also undergoes a sort of sacrifice of his self-worth, as he tells Vernon that “I'm about as bad as they come” (51), a sentiment he harbors only after he commits his crime. Vernon, on the other hand, assumes a more complete role as sacrificial surrogate victim in this story, deflecting upon himself the guilt and moral confusion associated with the act of murder, and sacrificing his family, as well as his life, as he becomes a pastor after retreating to the church, a fact

Ayad 6 revealed in the penultimate story, “Lazarus”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, however, Vernon sacrifices his innocence to this story so that his parents might escape and be happy together, with smoke from the fire behaving as a clear metaphor for the bitter wisdom that comes with knowing death. Again, McClymond's stages of sacrifice offer a way to explore Vernon's actions in “Smoke.” His entry into the arena is easily distinguished; as in“Staying Freight,” it is characterized by an actual, physical journey, though there is more spiritual preparation made in “Smoke,” as Vernon and his father work through the concept of God, especially in the face of tragedy. Vernon's father claims to have discovered God, telling his son that, “If you wronged someone and still want to do good by them, I believe that tenderness is God up in you...I believe God is full up in me” (50). He is obviously reconciling his own dilemma through God, while Vernon says that “Maybe awful things is all God's got to remind us he's alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men” (51). The cave that they enter in order to cremate the body is also described as having a “cathedral roof” (48), in keeping with the theme of God in the face of tragedy, and war in particular. The Roy Rogers scene is the beginning of the end for Vernon's innocence, as Roy snaps at Vernon for not singing with him “to take the dark edges off,” because “'They've been putting me through some tough times lately. I know it's my job and is what it is, but damn it, what with the war and so much fighting I just need to be out on a lonesome plain with me and Trigger and nobody around for a hundred miles” (53). Roy assumes the role of another war-torn man, weary of violence, and when he mentions that “they don't now how hard it is,” Vernon is able for the first time to say “I know, Roy. I know what it's like” (54). Vernon's innocence undergoes further destruction when he burns the body of Mr. Nory Augusto. As he leaves the cave and looks back to look at the smoke from the fire, Heathcock sums up the entirety of Vernon's destruction and loss of innocence: Black smoke smeared the sky like an oily thumb dragged down pretty paper. In that smoke were brass buttons and blood. Vernon's eyes burned from smoke. His hands and

Ayad 7 arms were beaded with soot-black sweat. Smoke clung to his hair, his clothes, his skin. He tasted smoke on his teeth...He saw only smoke-hazed sky. The sky had been sullied for so long Vernon couldn't recall a day without smoke...Wind-blown smoke swirled in the sky above where he lay, higher, swirling higher, and though he longed to believe his father, to understand him, he knew smoke was not rain and had found its way to his heart. He watched the sky and thought of all the fires the world had ever seen, fires from wars, fire from bombs. So much smoke. Where has it all gone? Where does it all go? He inhaled deeply and his insides burned, and Vernon knew that all that smoke was now just the air we breathe (60).

The third and final story to be analyzed, “Peacekeeper,” is the tale of Sheriff Helen Farraley and her struggle to deal with the murder of a local child, Jocie Dempsy as told through a series of very short vignettes, each examining a different set of events in a different time, jumping between spring 2008 and the week leading up to Christmas day the year prior. The story opens in the Spring of 2008 with Helen exploring the town, which has flooded, in her boat, while caring for several residents. Next, we read of her speaking with Freely, the mayor of the town and owner of the local diner and general store. It is here that we discover that Helen Farraley has been elected sheriff on accident, as the townspeople nominated her and voted for her “as a goof”, though she takes her job rather seriously. Mention is also made of Jocie Dempsy as being on a “Missing Girl” poster in Freely's diner. As the story unfolds, we learn that Farraley is lying to the parents of the missing Jocie, telling them that she is searching for their daughter, though she has already been discovered dead several days prior. We then move back to the flooded springtime, where Helen is using the Dempsy's home as a safe place to sleep. After a number of vignettes back and forth in December, Helen approaches the cabin of Jocie's killer, a man named Robert Joakes. Springtime returns briefly to introduce us to a looter named Donny Martin,

Ayad 8 whom Helen tries to help, only to become stranded in a tree herself, and then we are brought back to December, where Farraley is plotting what she calls “The Big Peace” (73). With a couple more scenes during the spring inserted, in which Helen is rescued by townspeople, Helen carries out her plan, capturing Joakes, throwing Jocie into the river to be washed up the next spring, and killing Joakes, staging the murder to appear like a suicide. Helen's sacrifice occurs throughout this story, due to its vignette-style method of carrying the reader back and forth through time to reveal all of the parts of the mystery in exactly the right order. She is deeply committed to establishing order in Krafton, and goes so far as to say that, “[her] religion is keeping peace” (79). She has obviously given up her own well-being, again both physically and spiritually, in order to guarantee the safety and peace of the citizens of Krafton, though it has meant lying to the parents of a dead girl, killing a man, and hiding two bodies, Joakes' and Jocie's. In addition, she has puts herself in danger to save the life of the known looter and low-life, Donny Martin. The end of this story brings about an interesting turn of events, as the penultimate “Spring 2008” scene begin with Sheriff Farraley and Donny Martin encountering a body, which Helen assumes to be Jocie's, as she had planned, but which actually ends up being a local farmer, Keller Lankford. Helen is shaking and yells for Donny to take off the sweater she had given him from the Dempsy home, and for Ray, Donny's friend, to get rid of the pile of dead dogs they had stumbled upon. The sweater is a constant reminder for Helen of her lies to the Dempseys, and the dogs are reminiscent of Joakes' dog, whom Helen shot shortly before executing Joakes. The final scene of the story, also set in Spring 2008, takes place around Keller's body, where a number of townspeople have gathered in order to pay respect to the dead and perform last rites. After Keller's face is exposed by the wind blowing her coat off of him, and Helen has to face the corpse of another human being, she tries to chase after her jacket and collapses, and Pastor Hamby and Frank Barker, two residents of the town, carry her. In the final moments of the narrative, Heathcock demonstrates in no subtle terms Helen's transition from the

Ayad 9 profane world to the sacred world: Walt Freely and Mary, Connie and David Dempsy, the little girl held to his shoulder, everyone she knew, grimly nodding, touching her pant legs, stroking her wrists, some speaking her name with a quiet reverence. 'Let me down,' she repeated, but they did not, and Helen began to cry. Rain drummed the masonry. Light from the storm laid a greenish glow in the hall. She could not stop herself from crying. They huddled around Helen, silent in the gloam, then the pastor raised his pulpit voice and called for them all to just clear out and leave her be (84). This passage is filled with references to the sacred, from the seemingly senseless acts of touching to speaking her name with reverence, Helen has become a savior figure in the eyes of the people of Krafton, and it is no accident that the pastor raised his 'pulpit voice', as the entire passage is constructed to demonstrate Helen's exit from the sacrificial arena of her “Big Peace”; though she is left alone to her own peace at the end, it is important also to note that the larger cycle of sacrifice in her life as sheriff is still intact, with Heathcock implying in this story that regardless of the nature of individual sacrifices made in response to individual events, there will always be a need for another sacrifice as peace is disrupted again and again by the omnipresent violence and 'smoke' that seems to suffuse the modern world. There is an important contrast between”Staying Freight,” “Smoke,” and “Peacekeeper”. “Smoke” is focused almost exclusively on Vernon's entry into the sacrificial arena, and the preparations he undergoes both physically and spiritually in order to sacrifice his innocence. “Peacekeeper,” on the other hand, has already established at the outset of the story that Helen is in a position of sacrifice, as she has been elected sheriff. Instead, this story is very much focused on the act of sacrifice undergone by Helen in her murder of the murderer Joakes, and in her response to that sacrifice, spending a great deal of time exploring the effect such a sacrifice has on her, rather than on the transition into the role of

Ayad 10 surrogate victim. “Staying Freight,” in contrast to the other two, is perhaps the most complete examination of the sacrificial ritual as a contained process, as Winslow clearly follows a path into the sacrificial arena, and is clearly destroyed as a result of his sacrifices. The exit from the sacrificial arena occurs when Sadie rescues him and returns him home, to civilization, and so the story incorporates all three elements of the ritual. This interpretation of the collection presents the idea that such sacrifice in the face of violence is an integral part of the human search for truth, as Heathcock writes: “The urgency of the questions (raised by violence) forces one to look DEEPLY for answers. Through this intense questioning comes insights, and through those insights, the truth. Redemption always accompanies a revelation of truth, even if that truth says that some questions are unanswerable, or that the answer is scarier than the question. Spirituality, in the most fundamental ways, directs the question, this pursuit of answers, truth. In this way, grief is always spiritual” (Email). The act of redemption is certainly the sacrificial act as outlined by McClymond, and so it is this act of sacrifice that brings about the revelation of truth, as a community is rescued by the sacrifice of the one looking for answers. On the whole, Volt stands proudly among the ranks of story chronicles, fragmented in its portrayal of the lives of eight seemingly unrelated groups of people. It's cohesion as a collection is due to its delivery of a strong, coherent argument on Heathcock's perspective on violence and the spiritual and moral struggle undergone by victims of war and murder in search of the truth; it also delves deep into the idea of sacrifice in a modern-day setting, one that is not necessarily tied to any one religion, but guided by the spirituality of connection, either to a community, or to one other person. God, in Volt, is not a Christian construct, but a Humanist one, made up of all of the good and bad in humanity, from Vernon's smoke to the tenderness his father feels for another man.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful