SCATTERED LIGHTS, by Steve Wiegenstein (2020)

My first girlfriend was an Adventist who implored me to take a short course on the history of the faith. Nothing remarkable about that, other than how desperately shy I was, and how I almost got myself married at age 19. (Instead, I was drafted.) Anyhow, I explored the Adventists a little more and discovered how they developed out of a group called the Millerites, who gathered on a mountain in Massachusetts in 1844 to await the return of Jesus. When he failed to arrive, the event came to be known as the “Great Disappointment.”

Which is my long winded way of saying that I identified with Wiegenstein’s wonderful story, “Signs and Wonders,” in which a hapless, though likable couple join a small town crank’s pilgrimage to an Ozarks campground, where they await the Rapture. Typically, Wiegenstein avoids satire here; satire would be too easy for such a subtle writer. His characters are sad, but you sympathize with the two misfits who have somehow found love with their only possible matches.

In a kindred story that bookends the collection, “The End of the World,” Larry “works at the Dixie Food Mart,” where he runs the produce department with great pride. He befriends a co-worker, a pretty high school girl named Tami, against a co-worker who’s a lout, and for the blink of an eye you think there might be some hope for loveless Larry. But Larry is a fundamentalist who can’t resist handing out tracts, which becomes so much of a public nuisance he nearly loses his job. The end of the world isn’t really at hand, but it seems to be for Larry, and it would greatly improve things for him. Again, Wiegenstein doesn’t condemn Larry; his handing out tracts is similar, really, to an overly-zealous environmentalist handing out an entirely different kind of literature. The point isn’t Larry’s hopeless religion. Rather, it’s his hopeless life, for which the tracts are only a symptom.

Other stories range widely. There’s “The Fair,” a fine, ironic tale of a carnival worker, by most any measurement a loser, who despite himself becomes a hero, and even finds a nice girl to settle down with, though whether he’ll manage it is another question. “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club” treats those small-town ladies’ clubs that grew up late in the 19th Century to stake their thin claims on culture. Somehow they still survive, though in this story they teeter on complete irrelevance.

Weigenstein takes an otherworldly turn in “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena,” about a young academic’s exploration of Ozarks UFOs, and, in a bit of a surprise, he explores the dating world in the comic “The Trouble with Women,” which might as well be about hand-to-hand combat.

Lovely collection, and with nary a miss. Everything is set in the south-central Ozarks, though the stories are perfectly universal. That is, if Eudora Welty and William Faulkner are universal.

After you’ve read this collection, you might want to try Wiegenstein’s highly entertaining historical novels, also set in southeastern Missouri. They follow the travails of a utopian colony from the Civil War onward:  Slant of Light (2012), This Old World (2014), and The Language of Trees (2017).