A new and heralded collection of short stories digs to the heart of obsession, isolation, and strangeness.
The lead players in Kevin Wilson’s debut short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, seem most at ease when owning up to their misfit status. Here’s a declaration by one, who relays her eccentricity in “The Museum of Whatnot”: “Up to this point, all I knew were beaten paths, tattooed with footprints, and I had come to the understanding that they were not much fun to travel because so many people were waiting for you at the end, wondering what took you so long.”
But, as many of Wilson’s stories go on to explore, accepting one’s obsession isn’t the same as enjoying it. These narratives are briskly paced but tender, often touching upon family rituals and fissures. From their premises on down, many are laced with humor, too. Wilson scores laughs in a number of ways, sometimes with repartee, sometimes situationally: “[M]y uncle Bit flicks my ear. This is the extent of our relationship.” Sometimes, the humor is downright puerile, as when a mortified daughter listens to her mother, a nurse, recounting brackish bodily fluid over a dinner of minestrone. Whichever method he utilizes, Wilson’s humor is always refreshing, cunning, and well controlled. This writer’s got whimsy to spare.
Two of the collection’s centerpieces—“Mortal Kombat” and “Go, Fight, When,” the book’s longest piece—feature isolated adolescents and the secret worlds they build for themselves. The latter tale revolves around a solitary cheerleader, and invokes Carson McCullers with maybe a dash more mercy. In the former, two teenagers have little going for them but their friendship, and they spend significant chunks of their days taking delight in video games or huddled in their school’s A/V room, testing each other on trivia: “They are alone in the world, in the school, in this tiny room, but they are together and that helps; they make each other possible.” When their sexuality announces itself, though, the two turn awkward even to each other. Wilson subtly weaves wicked images of his characters ripping each other to shreds in a video game with real, but confusing, acts of intimacy.
A couple of these stories flag in their final pages. And on occasion, Wilson can pull back on a crackling premise or character where he might have pushed further, mined more deeply. Take this late line from the title story, in which the narrator disputes his therapist’s explanation for why he has decided to drop out of life on the surface and start shoveling beneath the soil: “[Y]es, that is true… But it was more than that. I don’t know what it was, but I know it was more than that.” The hedging here stands in contrast to the collection’s outstanding opener, “Grand Stand-In.” In it, an elderly woman working as a relative-for-hire gradually, and satisfyingly, comes to rethink the consequences of her occupation: pretending to provide a grandmother’s doting affection to a series of children, on a pay-per-visit basis.
Still, all the stories in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are lush with imagination, humanity, and wit. It is a testament to Wilson’s talent how often he spins out a line that, though absurd, feels completely organic to the character thinking or saying it. Thanks to his slanted inventiveness, the conceptual fabric of Wilson’s tales always feels fresh, even foreign, while his characters, and the plights they plow through, are easily recognizable.