Cover image for Heartland : a novel
Heartland : a novel
Wiltse, David.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
291 pages ; 25 cm
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Format :


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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The author of Prayer for the Dead and Bone Deep takes readers on a chilling journey into rural America's heart of darkness. When a decorated Secret Service Agent suffers a crisis of confidence, he returns to his hometown where he finds that behind a small town's bigotry lies deadly intrigue.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

You'll never look at a grain silo in the same way after reading this novel. Wiltse injects his small-town Nebraska setting with Hitchcockian terror: a cornfield, a school yard, even pieces of farm equipment all move from ordinary to horrific in the blink of an eye. Agent Billy Tree, who investigated the homes of crackpots as part of pre-event security for the Secret Service, has returned to his hometown of Falls City, Nebraska, to recover from physical injuries and his deep shame after his partner was killed on a house search. Billy wants nothing more than to hole up at his sister's home, watching the road and replaying the scene where he failed his partner. But the plight of his old girlfriend and her son, victims of harrowing psychological abuse from the ex-husband, forces Billy to rejoin life. And when a school shooting wounds his girlfriend and kills others, Billy can no longer ignore the sheriff's pleas to help him investigate. What Billy discovers is that the seemingly pure midwestern small town harbors big-time vices. What Billy feels is still shame, skidding over into cowardice and increasing the overall tension. The book's climactic scene, played out in a grain silo, has to be one of recent fiction's most terrifying. Heartland delivers a wrenching psychological portrait along with blood pressure-raising suspense. Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

Wiltse's routine suspense yarn is a far cry, both geographically and dramatically, from his previous novel, the appropriately titled Blown Away, which featured a vibrant cast and a colorful New York City setting. The backdrop here is Falls City Nebr., a "scratch on the Great Plains with a population of a mere five thousand people," where Secret Service agent and Falls City native Billy Tree is recovering from a botched operation that left his partner dead and Billy severely traumatized. Settling in with his sister, Kath, Billy once again encounters his old friends and foes all straight out of central casting. Pat Kunkel, the town's crusty sheriff, resumes his paternal friendship with Billy, who rekindles his not-quite-consummated affair with high school sweetheart, Joan, who's divorced from abusive Duane. Then there's Kath's drunken husband ("Peripatetic Stu, as Billy called him") and Huford Peck, the town's simpleminded hobo. The list goes on. It takes Billy no time at all to realize that this Norman Rockwellesque burg has surprise a seamy underbelly. But when a shooting takes place at the local high school, the investigation seems no more pressing than the townsfolk's assorted peccadilloes. Though Billy's renewed relationship with Joan produces a few affecting moments, it's difficult overall to empathize with him. His mocking self-pity quickly wears thin, as does his habit of assuming an Irish brogue (homage to his ancestry) in times of stress. And the novel's set pieces action scenes making vivid use of the local landscape are undercut by lackadaisical pacing. Wiltse's frequently florid prose and his characters' homespun philosophizing are a further hindrance "Do you think it's just cornfields and a deranged boy with a gun? There are lives being lived here, Billy." Lives, maybe, but not a whole lot of life. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Minneapolis Some people trail squalor behind them," Walter Matuzak was saying, eyeing the building with disgust. A massive, burly man, he had the sensibilities of a Dutch housewife, a strange fastidiousness, Billy thought, in a man who used his bulk like a battering ram even in casual conversation.     "Like a tail," Matuzak continued, rapping on the basement door, "swish, swish, everything was okay, these assholes walk by and fucking chaos. Like one of those dogs, what do you call them, setters? Tail sticking out there like it's on a wire, swish, bang, knock everything out of place."     He had a certain point, thought Billy Tree, although he questioned the dog analogy. How else to explain a hovel like this in a town as clean and spread-out as Minneapolis? Billy saw movement behind a curtain, a suspicious eye peering past cloth that had once been white and now looked as if it were used to polish shoes.     "He's in there, wondering what kind of monster is banging on his door," Billy said.     "I know the asshole's in there," Matuzak said, hitting the door with the side of his fist. "I can smell him."     It was their fifth on-site investigation of the day with two more to go before calling it quits and Matuzak, never a patient man, was just one more aggravation away from fuming. The President's impending visit had the city aswarm with law enforcement people like an anthill disturbed by a careless boot.     "Who is it?" a voice asked from the other side of the door.     "Federal agents, Mr. Posner," Billy said hastily to forestall Matuzak's angry growl. The time to frighten a subject was after you were inside, not while he could still bolt out the back way. "We just want to ask you a few questions."     "Are you the IRS?"     "No, sir, nothing like that. We're Secret Service. You're not in any trouble. This won't take but a few minutes."     "Just a second."     "Probably went to tidy up," Matuzak said. "Do the vacuum, a little light dusting."     "Mustn't judge a man by his housekeeping, Walter."     "Man chooses to live in an outhouse, tells you something about his character, doesn't it?"     "Or the state of his bowels. Maybe he can't help it."     "Oh, please. No sociology. What do you want to bet the inside is covered with grime you'd have to chip off with a chisel?"     "What do you suppose D.O.Y. stands for?" Billy asked, changing the subject, holding the copy of Posner's letter. Matuzak took the plastic-covered letter between finger and thumb as if it were contaminated. It was signed "A. Posner, D.O.Y."     "Dork of the Year," Matuzak offered.     "Digital Yank Off."     "Dickweed Or Yams," Matuzak said, pounding the door again.     "That's probably it. Why didn't I think of it?"     The door opened and a pasty face peered at them through bloodshot eyes. Billy edged in front of Matuzak and showed his badge.     "A. Posner?"     The man blinked like a mole, blinded by the sun.     "Are you A. Posner, sir? I'm agent Billy Tree of the United States Secret Service."     The man continued to stare at them as if stupefied.     "You want to let us in?" Matuzak growled.     Billy smiled at the man, engulfing him in a warmth that was as sudden as it was insincere. "Won't take a minute."     The man responded by smiling back, revealing as bad a set of teeth as Billy had ever seen, a mouth overcrowded with canines that wrestled and overstepped one another like a snarl of barbed wire. Billy felt a momentary surge of sympathy for the man, forced to go through life like that in the land of orthodontia. Not hard to imagine the cruelty of his childhood.     Posner stepped back, admitting the agents.     Matuzak muttered under his breath, "Charming Billy." Under his breath or not, it was clearly audible. Posner turned, temporarily puzzled, thinking he had been addressed.     "I don't have to talk to you, do I?" Posner asked, deferentially. Billy detected the slight foreign accent, which would account for the teeth.     Matuzak stepped closer to the man, almost toe-to-toe. He was half a head taller and twice his size. "What's the problem?"     "No, I was just ... no problem." The man smiled again. Billy noticed Matuzak wince at the sight of his teeth.     The room offered no signs of dementia, which was what agents looked for first. No pictures of the President used for a dartboard--it was surprising how often they saw that. No swastikas on the wall, no instruments of torture. The room was grubby, the walls stained with watermarks, the furnishings cheap and sparse, but the place had its own sense of order. An amazing number of the angry letter writers lived in a litter of pizza boxes and overflowing ashtrays.     Matuzak had moved behind Posner. He ran a finger across a tabletop as if he wore a white glove and held it up behind the man's back, disgustedly and triumphantly, for Billy to see. Posner had failed Walter's test of character.     "We thought we might have a chat about this," Billy said, holding out the copy of the letter Posner had written.     "Did the President read it?" Posner asked, pride of authorship lighting his face.     "No, we read it," said Matuzak. He continued to search the room, his nose aloft, as if seeking the source of an unsavory smell.     "It's a federal offense to threaten the President of the United States, Mr. Posner," Billy said. He moved toward a collapsible card table that served Posner as a writing desk. The computer atop it looked as if it had been recovered from the dump.     "Threaten? I didn't really threat ..."     Matuzak took the letter from Billy and waggled it in front of Posner's face like a preacher with proof of sin.     "`Maximum retribution,'" Matuzak quoted. "You're offering the President of the United States `maximum retribution,' Dickweed. What is that if not a threat?"     "I can explain all this," Posner said, sounding as if he might burst into tears. Matuzak's impression of barely suppressed fury often had that effect. Billy did not think he'd ever seen Matuzak really dangerously angry, but he did a wonderful imitation.     "That would be very good if you explained it, Mr. Posner," Billy said. "We don't want to trouble you any more than necessary, so if you could just help us to understand ..."     Billy glanced at the computer screen. Posner was on the Web, some news group talking about infrastructures. Every malcontent in the country seemed to live on the Internet.     Posner was nodding his head vigorously, eager to oblige.     Matuzak lowered his face to Posner's level, moving as slowly as a derrick easing down a heavy load.     "That would be real nice, Dickweed, if you would help us to understand."     "I can show you in my bedroom?"     "You want to take me to your bedroom, then?" Matuzak growled with exaggerated patience as if speaking to a half-wit.     "I can show you in here," Posner said, preceding Matuzak into a narrow hallway leading toward the bedroom and the bathroom.     "You like yams, do you?" Matuzak asked, following him.     "Yams?"     Billy heard Posner's baffled reply from the hallway.     "You eat a lot of yams, Dickweed?"     With the two of them out of the room, Billy looked more carefully at the computer screen. Politics. The kind of feverish polemic favored by the extremist fringe, everything, even the phrasing seeming slightly askew.... Billy saw the words "Defenders of Yisrael." D.O.Y.?     Posner stood in the hallway again.     "Could you come in, please?" Posner sounded slightly distressed, looked embarrassed. He withdrew into the bedroom and Billy stepped into the hallway.     The floor was cracked linoleum, crumbling with age. Just before he reached the bedroom door Billy heard a gurgling sound as if the toilet plumbing were having problems.     Matuzak was dancing next to the bed, his toes gliding just inches off the floor. It did not seem possible, a grown man off the ground with no visible means of support, no ropes, no strings. It flashed through Billy's mind that Matuzak and Posner, who stood on the bed just behind Matuzak now, were in collusion in some secretly contrived conjurer's act of levitation. It took Billy a moment to notice the big man's purple face, the eyes popping, the mouth open and emitting the gasps of strangulation that Billy had thought was plumbing, another moment to process the filament-thin piano wire running through a metal ring secured on the ceiling, the loop around Matuzak's neck, the crimson line across the agent's throat where the wire had already sunk deep beneath the flesh with the force of Matuzak's weight and bit deeper still with each spastic contortion of the dying man, threatening to decapitate him before it suffocated him. Matuzak's hands clawed desperately at the wire, the skin of his throat was torn and bleeding from the action of his own frenzied fingernails, and his elbows flapped as if attempting to fly, to elevate, to lift himself above the weight of his body that was killing him.     Behind the agent's body, like a puppeteer with his dying marionette, stood Posner. He smiled, his teeth looking now like a shark's mouth, as he pointed Matuzak's service automatic at the heart of Billy Tree.     Billy took a step backward for balance, as if the grotesquerie of Walter dancing by the neck had jolted his equilibrium. He was stunned, but not yet fearful, not at that point. But as he recoiled his foot caught in a crack of the linoleum and he fell. His right elbow broke the fall and the force of it left his arm temporarily paralyzed and useless. Posner leaned around Walter's jigging bulk, aiming the automatic at Billy, jerking it and jerking it. Unfamiliar with weapons, Posner had neglected to remove the safety, and clawed at it now, trying to fire the gun. Lying on the floor, Billy struggled to make his disabled right arm behave his will and retrieve his own weapon from the shoulder holster. His arm flopped on his chest like a grounded fish, a useless, pointless, defenseless thing. Posner finally found the safety, removed it, and aimed again at Billy.     The room seemed to be filled with noise, solid with it, as if they moved and breathed in a medium of sound. Matuzak gasped and choked and gargled his final breaths, Posner howled like an animal and Billy added his own frantic keenings to the mix. He knew then, as his numbed fingers flapped ineffectually against the lapel of his jacket, seeming miles away from his weapon, that he was going to be killed.     "No, no!" he said at first, as if Posner could be forestalled by a simple command, then his nerve broke, he held up his left hand to catch the bullet, and he pleaded for his life. "Please, don't! Please! Don't!"     The first shot struck Billy in the right femur, shattering the bone. Billy felt no pain, just an enormous blow, as if he had been hit with a sledgehammer. He was completely stunned for a moment, unable to think, feeling he had been pole-axed in the head in addition to the leg, and he watched Posner aim again, leveling at his chest, but was unable to react, unable to move, caught in the glue of slow-motion dreaming. Posner was going to kill him in a fog, in time-arrested movement, and Billy was going to die with cinematic surreality, tumbling languidly into death as a stunned ox in an abattoir sinks to its knees.     But Matuzak's moving body nudged Posner's arm as he fired again. The bullet struck the floor beside Billy's head with a deafening roar, as if it had been detonated inside his eardrum. Shards of linoleum and underlying wood splintered into the side of Billy's face, and these he felt. The pain of the splinters awoke him, snapped him from the stupor inflicted by the blow to his leg, and Billy was suddenly overcome with fear. Posner aimed once more.     "Oh, please, mister," he said, reverting in an instant to a terrified child. "Please, no!"     And then Billy felt himself let go, felt his sphincter fail, felt the hot, watery putrefaction spill forth from his body.     Posner fired again, hitting Billy in the chest.     "Oh, God, mister, please. No more. No more."     Billy begging, pleading, sniveling like a child, waiting for the shot, praying for his life as if Avi Posner was the Virgin herself and not a half-mad fanatic with the teeth of a beast and Matuzak's Smith & Wesson.     He was going to die now, he knew. There was no hope of crawling away, no way to avoid the bullets. Posner would kill him piecemeal, pumping badly aimed shots into him until one of them found a lethal target. He could see Posner's arm extended past the screen of Matuzak's body, half of Posner's head peering round, taking aim; he saw Posner's teeth, lips peeled back as he howled his murderous delight.     Without his knowing it, Billy's arm regained its ability to move. Without feeling it he grabbed his weapon from its holster under his left arm. Walter twisted violently, swinging abruptly in front of Posner, blocking his aim.     Billy fired at the part of Posner he could see, then fired again and again, the bullets slapping into Matuzak's bulk with the thump of a bat against a bag of wheat. The agent's body recoiled, swinging backward into Posner, then slowly forward, twisting at the same time. Billy caught a full glimpse of Posner, teeth still bared but his eyes now puzzled. Billy emptied the clip, firing through Matuzak to where he thought Posner's trunk must be.     When the clip was empty Billy put down the gun, waiting to be killed. Matuzak's backward sway was arrested and suddenly the agent's body vaulted forward, arms flying to the side with the momentum, like a scarecrow sprung to life, animated by the devil. Posner collapsed to the floor beneath Matuzak, his T-shirt speckled with red eruptions. Matuzak's body swung back again, then fell atop Posner as the added gravity of the arc snapped the wire.     For a moment Billy felt nothing, thought nothing, saw nothing but an ant walking upside down on the ceiling. Then the pain and the horror slammed into him simultaneously and he began to scream. (Continues...)