Typically, characterizing any event as “the way things always go” signifies a not-so-happy ending to the tale. Thus, the title of Kevin Stewart’s collection of eight stories and a novella— The Way Things Always Happen Here—is a gimme.
From the opening story, “One Mississippi,” to the closing novella, “Margot” (which won the 1999 Texas Review Novella Prize), this collection features protagonists who embody the struggle to escape one’s roots while simultaneously hanging on to them for dear life—which, his characters find, is a self-defeating effort from the start. Set in the Arkansas Ozarks and fictional Oak County in West Virginia, Stewart’s stories explore father/son conflict as it impacts young men reaching adulthood, alcoholism, self-loathing, poverty and the hold that small towns seem to exert on their citizens.
The Way Things Always Happen Here is comparable in theme and character to much of Larry McMurtry’s work, being about small-town folks trying to see beyond the horizon without getting blinded by the sun as it sets or rises on them. It is not unlike J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, too, in its portrayals of young men coming of age and coming to terms with the limitations of their environments. Stewart, a native of West Virginia, seems intimately acquainted with his subject matter.
“One Mississippi” introduces the theme of failed men fathering flailing sons. The speaker and his buddy Eddie, on the verge of leaving Oak County for different military careers after leaving high school, have decided to parachute illegally off of New River Gorge Bridge. Unlike the “sixty thousand Eddies stuck in Oak County,” the speaker insists that, though he is “shackled to Oak County by family, by the way your hometown can define you,” he’s going to escape and leave his harshly critical father behind. As in the other stories in the collection, Stewart nicely draws on metaphorical use of the landscape to illustrate his character’s state of mind.
“Sarah’s Story” features a female protagonist, an architect who can’t seem to finish work on her own house between nights of drinking, crashing her car and picking her young son up from her parents’ home, where he is sent too often to stay. This story is perhaps one of the weaker ones in the collection: Good fiction requires both conflict and change within the protagonist (growth, new awareness, something), and “Sarah’s Story” does not provide a sense that Sarah is doing anything more than observing her own downward spiral.
“Debts” is about a college graduate who has traded in teaching for Appalachian basket weaving, to his coal-miner father’s dismay. More than any other in the collection, with the exception of the novella “Margot,” this story lets the metaphors speak for themselves as Stewart explores what we may or may not owe those who have come before us and those who will follow.
“June Hay” presents one of the most disturbing scenarios in the book. A father and son are mowing the hay before rain, the son charged with watching for birds’ nests in the field so that his father can avoid them. The tractor runs over a fawn hiding in the tall grass, and the father deals with the animal in what might—in a different story—be seen as imperturbable country common sense, but not in this case: The speaker’s father looks “at the fawn as if it were something about himself he hoped he’d never have to deal with.” The visceral imagery, pithy one-liners about life as the characters know it, and impeccable emotional reporting in this story supply numerous highpoints, in sharp contrast to other, more pedestrian writing here and there in the collection.
If there is a criticism to be weighed against The Way Things Always Happen Here, it is an unevenness of excellence. Some of the writing reads as though it skipped through an editor or two without a close look, which might have called for the writer to polish up those parts so that they would shine along with the best-crafted portions of this collection.