Patrick Stockwell’s novella, The Light Here Changes Everything, is a journey from Texas to Arizona in the tradition of a good, old fashioned American road trip. But, Stockwell powerfully challenges the form. While John Steinbeck might go on a similar journey for 400-some pages or Jack Kerouac for 300, Stockwell uses only 69, and in this way, Stockwell’s road trip, dysfunctional and moving, is an update to these classics. Stockwell is able to pull off this feat of structural ingenuity because his story is deeply human. Sophie, a recovering alcoholic, agrees, against the advice of her Sponsor and AA friends, to go on vacation to Arizona with Sid, her dead-beat boyfriend. This situation, loaded and volatile, is crafted with a sharp attention to detail that remains rooted in Sophie’s story regardless of the miles and missteps.
From the beginning, Sophie guides the story. As she follows a veteran to the stage and prepares to tell her story at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and receive her one year chip, she sets the stakes for the rest of the novella: “If being sober was still a challenge for someone who’d fired machine guns at strangers and watched them die, she thought, how in the bloody fuck could she expect to keep herself in check when Sid went on another shopping binge and the rent check bounced again?” Sophie gives her speech and leaves town the next day with Sid—and what ensues is little more than a binge. Sid has his own drinking problems and Sophie aims to please. Though this is a recipe for disaster, it is also the road map to Sophie’s self-discovery.
At a bar in New Mexico, while Sophie fights for her sobriety and Sid gets progressively drunker, Sophie walks outside to smoke a cigarette and call her Sponsor. “Eventually,” Stockwell writes, “they ran out of things to say and hung up. From Sophie’s perspective, there was only so much talking that could be done before it lost meaning, usefulness, and became a flat puddle of words.” It is only when she is off the phone that she finds a calm. She wanders a little, feels the cool night, and hears the nocturnal life of the desert. She remains outside and repeats, “This is peace,” until there is no other option than to believe that this is, indeed, true. In this moment and many others, Sophie deepens, and as a result, it is hard not to root for her, even if she, herself, is unsure what the end goal of her journey may be.
Sophie continues to have her ups and downs, but as the story progresses, Stockwell notes subtle changes in her character, notes the restorative power of the desert. Sophie and Sid make it to Flagstaff and explore nearby Pueblo ruins. The event is powerful: “All of Sophie’s attention was given to the silence and a growing feeling of being enclosed, embraced, overtaken by the welcome nothing that had claimed her. The nagging, the all-consuming vigilance that had plagued her throughout her sobriety was for one fragile instant suppressed.” The landscape refreshes Sophie, but Stockwell avoids romanticizing the West, the desert, when he writes two pages later, “Every destination held the promise of bad decisions, the immense risk of failing.” And, this reality mirrors Sophie’s own struggle with herself, her inability to give herself the power to let go, move forward, and even dump Sid. Shortly after their visit to the ruins, Sid, in a brief moment of tenderness, looks to Sophie, and Stockwell offers this reflection: “Once, she would have believed she was catching him in the act of loving her, and on their better days, days like today, that still held true. Still, the skeptic inside her refused to stay silent.” This reflection shows, clearly, that this world, which verges on sentimental but pulls back sharply, is solely Sophie’s. That’s the genius of Stockwell’s novella, one that enters the area of the great American road trip and flips the genre on its head, condensing the sprawling search into a story of singular personal purpose.
In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Alice McDermott spends time reflecting on the power of the short novel, how difficult it is to write, and how she, as accomplished as she is, struggles to write one. For McDermott, voice is everything in a novel, short or long. She says, “It’s about word choice and grammar and punctuation, yes, but also about sensibility, mood. There is a moral vision as well as a literal vision, both what the character/writer/narrator sees and chooses to see and, more profoundly, I think, what is heard.” So what of the novella? What of Sophie? What do we hear? Novellas need the power of a short story, the storytelling of a novel, and, according to Alice McDermott, a voice that lingers, that not only entertains but also instructs. In The Light Here Changes Everything, we get all these things and more, and they build to a satisfying end, in which we not only feel a change, a strengthening in Sophie, but also a challenge to interrogate why we hold onto those things we shouldn’t. We feel a challenge to ask ourselves hard questions about our own stories and what we want them to be.
The Light Here Changes Everything by Patrick Stockwell is the 2018 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize Winner for Texas Review Press and is available at here.
Patrick Stockwell is a native of Houston, Texas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from New Mexico State University. He lives in San Antonio and serves as Literary Programs Director for Gemini Ink, the city’s literary arts center.
Tyler Truman Julian is originally from Wyoming, though he currently resides in Mesilla, NM, with his wife. He is an MFA Candidate in New Mexico State University's fiction program and is the Managing Editor for Puerto del Sol. He is the author of Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), available from Finishing Line Press.