I had the opportunity to hear Kevin C. Stewart read from his debut short story collection on Friday, October 5th 2007. Mr. Stewart read the title story from the collection, THE WAY THINGS ALWAYS HAPPEN HERE. It is the heart-breaking story of teenage lovers separated by events both in and out of their control and the place from which they both try to break free.
The desire to escape one’s circumstances and place are a common theme in the collection. Mr. Stewart presents well-realized characters firmly grounded in fictional Oak County West Virginia. The setting is fictional, but it is populated with very real people; they are often the person standing just next to us if not ourselves. Many of the characters drawn seek to escape from their surroundings, but are prevented from doing so by the circumstances of their own lives. They are often defeated by their own hope in the end.
Several of the stories feature a failed relationship between a father and his son. This occurs in the opening story, “One Mississippi”, in which a son takes both a figurative and literal leap of faith by joining the armed forces. The gut-wrenching and poignant “June Hay” also explores the same difficult relationship between father and son pointing to the consequences of choice and instruction from parent to child.
The story, “Debts”, was my favorite from the collection. It involves the relationship between a son who has decided to take his life in a direction different from that planned by his father. The conflict in the story is both subtle and up-front as both father and son assist in restoring hope and livelihood to a mutual friend unbeknownst to each other.
Discussion following the reading centered on how Mr. Stewart’s work embodies real stories, and not an academic style of prose common in many of today’s MFA programs. I agree with this assessment as I very much enjoyed reading each story in the collection. The stories worked well on every level for me. This was confirmed in Mr. Stewart’s reading. Many times, when a modern short story is read by its creator, one realizes that something is different. The characters and setting are not the same as one imagined when first reading the story. It is as if something has been lost. This was not the case in hearing “The Way Things Always Happen Here” read aloud. It rang true for me in exactly the same way I had imagined it when I first read the story. Mr. Stewart also interjected comments into the story on how he arrived at certain elements by pulling from his past experience and what he had observed in the world around him. This confirms that the story has to be at the heart of writing, that human experience and emotion must spring clearly from the page, or we’re left with flat writing that won’t be remembered in a year.
Mr. Stewart is from Princeton, West Virginia. He won the Texas Review Novella Prize for MARGOT, as well as numerous other awards. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, along with degrees in English, architecture, and civil engineering. Mr. Stewart is a professor of English and creative writing at Potomac State College, a branch campus of West Virginia University. He advised that he is currently working on another collection of inter-related short stories to be published in early 2008.