Scattered Lights. By Steve Wiegenstein. (Cornerpost Press 2020 Pp. 164)
Reviewed by Craig Albin
We have all seen them. Approaching a small town by night, we notice first the lights that spangle homes and businesses, and perhaps we project upon their luster the safety and comforts of community, the consoling promise of an outpost in the darkness. Yet in the new story collection Scattered Lights, author Steve Wiegenstein complicates casual assumptions about small town, rural life, his stories demonstrating how abruptly people can be stripped of sheltering securities only to find themselves “instantly at the edge of something” (101), they know not what.
Set primarily in Missouri’s eastern Ozarks, Wiegenstein’s stories often unfold in or near the aptly named town of Piedmont, roughly translated as “foothill.” Given this geographic particular, Scattered Lights may be said to have a regional focus, but Wiegenstein shows no interest in exploiting the fetish of local color so habitually associated with Ozark fiction. Instead, he renders relatable characters caught up in individual conflicts and contradictions, and he probes their complexities at levels deep enough to fulfill Eudora Welty’s dictum that “human life is fiction’s only theme.”
The character Larry is a prime example. Protagonist of both “The End of the World” and “Signs and Wonders,” the two stories bookending Scattered Lights, Larry is someone about whom a lesser writer than Wiegenstein might be tempted to make mean-spirited fun. Fervently religious, Larry has left one fundamentalist church for another “in a dispute over Christian perfectionism, whether being born again could enable a person to become entirely free from sin” (5). Larry prefers the latter view, believing he has heard God declare “the soul is my perfect, glorious jewel” (5). Over the course of both stories, however, the risks Larry takes for the ideal of perfectionism grow more consequential, until by the end of the book he finds himself alone, listening not to the voice of God but to “the droning machinery of the exhausted world” (152). It is a testament to Wiegenstein’s skill and compassion that we do not mock Larry’s choices, but rather feel the depth of his weariness and despair.
Similarly, we identify with the bewildered angst of the teenaged Mark in “Weeds and Wildness.” Mark has recently graduated from high school but “doesn’t know what to do with himself.” Despite his limited years, he has grown so weary of “the whole machinery of education” that he wants “to stop thinking for a while, to simply live, without the urgency of preparing himself for something yet to come” (14). What Mark has not yet learned, of course, is that something is always coming, in this case a request from the newly-paroled father of a high school friend. The older man’s appeal leaves Mark feeling as if “he had been maneuvered into something, but he didn’t know what” (24). To his credit, he does not allow this dilemma to bury him deeper in his mental malaise, but rather summons the energy to seek direction, even when no clear path reveals itself to him. Fittingly, at the end of the story he crests a ridge and spots the “scattered lights” of Piedmont, which appear “seemingly random but somehow connected, if only he could see the pattern” (28). In realizing he must make the connections for himself, he begins his adult life.
A later blooming version of Mark is Chester Wilson, protagonist of the Wordsworth-echoing story “Late and Soon.” Chester is another character who would prefer not to be disturbed by life’s unpredictable demands or society’s obsession with getting and spending. He is approaching middle-age and passes “too much of his time in bars” (111), habitually shifting his mind into “nobody-home-here mode, where it stayed most of the time out in the real world” (112). His withdrawal from that world is matched by his withdrawal from nature, even though he lives (courtesy of his father, the story implies) next to a golf course in Belle Prospect, which seems a combination of retirement community and time-share venture carved out of thickly forested Ozark landscape. Chester has built a cabin “in the scruffiest corner of his father’s double lot” (112), yet he is so alienated from nature that he is one of the few Belle Prospect residents who does not sport a tan. Nor does he seem to have a job until his father arranges a position for him selling lots in Belle Prospect, an experience that ends abruptly and unsuccessfully. Presumably Chester is unsurprised by his failure, but the defeat moves him to the brink of a surprising choice, one that portends deeper commitment to the only person who won’t enable his nobody-home-here avoidance.
Arguably the youngest protagonist in Scattered Lights is the one least inclined to shy away from reality. In “Magic Kids,” fourteen-year-old Will stoically endures an unnamed but apparently terminal illness. The organization Magic Kids, which bears strong resemblance to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, sponsors Will and his family on a trip to Kansas City where he can experience a few brisk laps around a speedway with a prominent race car driver. The noisy setting of a speedway notwithstanding, “Magic Kids” turns out to be largely a story of silences, those awkward moments when people cross the boundaries of pretense and find themselves balancing, wordless, on the knife-edge of truth. One such moment occurs when Will, unable to sleep, wanders down to the lobby of the hotel where Magic Kids has booked the family a suite and begins a conversation with the desk clerk, only to learn that she has lost her only child to a heart defect. “He’d known this silence himself. Friends would come by, his friends, his parents’ friends, and they would accidentally say something painful. And then the silence, or worse, the rush of apologies, more words trying to cover the earlier words, but never succeeding” (105). Perhaps because he is so young, or perhaps because he is tired of pretense, Will rarely tries to cover. The next day, when the race car driver asks him what he will do when he returns home, Will responds matter-of-factly: “I don’t know . . . .Die, I guess” (108). His frank answer imposes silence on the small group gathered around him, bringing each to the edge of something rarely contemplated.
Good short stories lure readers into worlds of texture and consequence, where characters grapple with realities too often locked in shadowy back rooms of human consciousness. Likewise, good story collections adumbrate meaningful associations between individual stories, coaxing readers to puzzle out the links much as Mark from “Weeds and Wildness” does when he seeks a pattern in the scattered lights of Piedmont. Steve Wiegenstein’s Scattered Lights is such a collection, good in quality and in spirit. To read it is to find reward.
Steve Wiegenstein holds a doctorate in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he has taught at Centenary College of Louisiana, Drury University, Culver-Stockton College, and Western Kentucky University. Wiegenstein’s nonfiction and short fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, and he maintains a blog on which he discusses Ozarks-related topics. Wiegenstein’s novels include Slant of Light (2012), This Old World (2014), and The Language of Trees (2017). Slant of Light was an honorable mention for the David J. Langum Historical Fiction Award in 2012, and This Old World was a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction in 2014.
Craig (C. D.) Albin is a professor of English at Missouri State University–West Plains. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including Arkansas Review, Big Muddy, Cape Rock, Cave Region Review, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, Philological Review, and Style. Ten of his short stories were collected in Hard Toward Home, published by Press 53 in 2016, a collection for which Albin received the Missouri Author Award from the Missouri Library Association in 2017. His poetry collection, Axe, Fire, Mule, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2018.