Review ♦ Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth

About the Book

Kevin Wilson's characters inhabit a world that moves seamlessly between the real and the imagined, the mundane and the fantastic. "Grand Stand-In" is narrated by an employee of a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider—a company that supplies "stand-ins" for families with deceased, ill, or just plain mean grandparents. And in "Blowing Up On the Spot," a young woman works sorting tiles at a Scrabble factory after her parents have spontaneously combusted.

Southern gothic at its best, laced with humor and pathos, these wonderfully inventive stories explore the relationship between loss and death and the many ways we try to cope with both.


Book Title: Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth Genre: Fiction / Short Stories
Author: Kevin Wilson Type: Trade Paperback 240 Pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial Publication Date: March 2009

My Thoughts on The Stories

Grand Stand-In

An older woman works for a company that provides people with ready-made grandparents. She must join in on family affairs and pretend to be the grandmother figure. This could be because the real grandmother has died, is no longer a part of the family or not a suitable role model. But the reasons don’t matter, all that matters is that she does her job, and she does it well because she has a talent.

“I am the queen of disconnect” “And I am the best. I get the highest approval ratings from my families, lots of monthly report cards that read, ‘I wish she really were my mother’ or ‘Can we adopt her?’, but I don’t miss them when they are gone. I love them, but I know what kind of love it is. Disconnecting may seem cold, but it is what is required. And I am, as I have been told many times, so damn good at it.”

However, her most recent family hires her for a switch-job, one that requires her to take the place of a living and already known grandmother, and she begins to question what she believed in all along.

Blowing Up On The Spot

Both parents dead from spontaneous human combustion, a younger brother who has attempted suicide more than once and the responsibility that comes with being the guardian and supporter of this young brother, is more stress than one young man can handle. This young man works in a scrabble tile factory, every day he must spend hours searching through piles and piles of little wooden tiles searching only for Q’s – which are easily mistaken with O’s. He’s worried about combusting and blowing up himself someday, and he’s always watching his little brother for signs that he may try to end his life again. He’s also a counter, he counts he footsteps wherever he goes, as though he can find comfort in the control he has over how many steps he takes – he can take bigger steps for less, or smaller steps for more. The numbers will not save him, and the little power they give him cannot decide his fate. But maybe the girl from the sweet-smelling candy shop by his apartment can help this young man and his brother to survive.

The Dead Sister Handbook: A Guide For Sensitive Boys

This story is actually written in the style of a handbook/dictionary to help boys with dead sisters. It’s not the full handbook, only an excerpt, specifically Volume 5 (Laconic Methods to Near Misses) and while it may seem disjointed this small piece will come together to tell a complete story of loss.

Look-Alikes
Sensitive boys will encounter between four and eleven women who resemble the dead sister. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to talk to these women, follow them down crowded city streets, or pay them money in exchange for sexual favors. Nothing good can come from this.

Even with the untraditional format I thought this one was really intense. I think it shows how connected a set of siblings can be. And how hard it is to make the journey from ‘being a brother’ to ‘was a brother’ – as though with the loss of a sister the brother also loses a part of his own identity.

Birds In The House

A young boy accompanies his father and uncles to the reading of his grandmothers will. She has left instructions with the attending lawyer that her estate be left to one of her sons, but she did not name who. Instead they must compete to win. And they will fight viciously against one another, as there is no brotherly love between the men. The competition involves each man first folding 250 paper cranes, then placing them on a table with fans. The last paper crane left on the table and it’s owner will inherit the entire estate. The others get nothing.

It is what my grandmother wanted. It was her desire, her one last hope, for the brothers to gather here in the house they once shared, to make birds out of paper and maybe find something decent in one another that would sustain them.

The boys grandmother was from Japan, and with her American husband she moved back to his home in the southern United States to build their family. The paper cranes were an important thing to her, but her sons always thought of them as useless, time-wasting things. Now with her last wish, her sons are forced together again, but they come not because of the cranes. It is greed and hatred that has them folding cranes for her. Through her young grandson’s eyes we experience this hatred, but maybe his youth is enough to see through the anger and glimpse the magic his grandmother found in the paper cranes.

Mortal Kombat

Although short, simple and straight to the point, this story really blew me away. Scotty and Wynn are two adolescent boys, outcasts from the society of their peers, but brought together by their shared passion for knowledge. They spend their lunch hours hidden in a dark A/V room testing one another on facts, going over page after page of encyclopedias and books. The are Quiz Bowl champions. Away from school they share an obsession for violent video games, spending hours fighting one another on screen, with controllers in hand. Bloody battles that end up with one or the other killing the weaker of the two. One day however, in the A/V room, something happens to change their friendship.

It is simple and awkward at the same time, the way they proceed. There is only the quickness of movement, the instinctive responses of the body. It feels like fighting; that is what runs through both of their minds. It lasts all of two minutes, maybe less. When it is over they are sweating and shirtless, skin burned read in the shape of handprints, backing away from each other in small, careful steps.

Everything changes after that, and the boys do not know how to approach this new aspect of their relationship. Their passion when playing video games has always been a mental exertion, but now they find that passion has taken them over physically. But in the game someone always has to be the loser, the beaten, the dead. Wynn has trouble accepting that this new game doesn’t follow the rules and Scotty wants Wynn to see that what they’ve discovered is different yet okay. Rules are meant to be broken. The boys both must understand that sometimes the most dangerous things are the emotional battles rather than the physical.

Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth

Of all the stories in this collection, I found this one was the most terrifying, probably because I could relate to it so well. It’s summer and a group of recent college graduates are sitting around the narrators’ house doing nothing. Suddenly they grab some tools and begin digging in the backyard.

None of us came up with the idea on our own that morning. It just sort of hit us all simultaneously. You spend enough time with someone, you start to think in sync with them, and at this moment we all just thought the same thing: We should dig, get underground. So we did.

It began as a simple hole, getting deeper and deeper, until as a group they stopped going downwards, and began going sideways. Weeks pass and they’ve tunneled all across town, weaving labyrinth-like passageways, and dead-ends, and sometimes going back up in unexpected places. They’ve gathered supplies and live in their underground tunnels now. The narrators’ parents deliver food to them, and it’s at these times that the group realize what direction is up now. Being in their underground home has given them the freedom to lose all perspective, as though they are floating in a safe, dirt-encrusted womb. They’ve found peace, until the group begins breaking up and crawling back into the world. I thought this story described perfectly the feelings a person may have when they’re at that point in life when they are pushed in a new direction. From birth we are shown the steps to take – go to grade school, make friends, graduate high school, go on to college, get a degree so you can get a good job – but then what? You’re an adult now and no one can tell you where to go, what to do, how to live. And if you make a mistake, you cannot blame anyone else, because it’s your life now. Hiding and avoiding life would be so much easier. And the digging, it implies a purpose. But once you’ve dug so far, and the end is still not clear, you have to make a decision – die in the grave you’ve dug or pull yourself out and live.

The Shooting Man

After reading this one, I had to go back and read it again. It was haunting, and I was confused and I still haven’t quite figured out what was going on. The actual plot is clear, no confusing stuff there. It was the narrators’ mind I wanted more insight into. I was looking for concrete meaning behind the tale, but I think it would be different for everyone who reads it.

It took me damn near a week to convince Sue-Bee to come watch this guy shoot himself in the face. “Why would I wanna do something like that, Guster?” she asked me, which seemed like a dumb question because why does anyone want to do anything? It just seemed like fun, that’s all.

That’s the first sentence (well first two actually) and it sets the mood of the story well. Guster’s thoughts about the shooting man are voiced so naturally, but the subject is so strange. It’s a great mixture. I’m not giving a description of this one, because I think it’s best to read it fresh with no opinion beforehand. Like I said, I believe every person takes something different from a story, and I’m sure this one would spark quite a few differing thoughts.

The Choir Director Affair (the baby’s teeth)

Sometimes a normal thing can be so twisted and become so astounding just by changing or adding one single thing. Something you would never expect to see. Again the first couple sentences of this story managed to completely entrance me:

This is the baby, and yes, those are teeth. They’re not important. Don’t think about them. Nothing special, this baby with teeth. Usually it is only a snaggletooth, a single, perfectly formed tooth in the tiny mouth, unlike the full set on this baby. Still, it has happened before, is happening now, will happen again, Jesus Christ, get over it. It is nothing to get excited about. They are only teeth. So forget we even mentioned it because it doesn’t matter: the baby, the teeth, the pacifiers gnawed until they are unrecognizable.

Can’t you just feel the intensity of the narrator? He’s trying so hard to ignore the teeth, but he’s captivated, disgusted, completely obsessed. This was such an amazing read, not because of plot or characters. It was that the writing had such a furiousness about it. The idea was also fascinating. People have teeth and it’s never something to be astonished about, but give the context a little nudge, as the author did by giving a baby a full set of chompers, and it can change a person’s entire world.

Go, Fight, Win

My favorite story of the collection, and I really wanted to share a passage from it. I read and re-read and finally came to see that it would be impossible to choose one that would properly show just how beautiful and heart-breaking and moving this story was. It’s like every phrase and word was chosen with such care to make the whole story come alive. I’m gushing, I know. This is another story about adolescence and the struggle for freedom. In this one we are introduced to a young girl who just wants to be allowed to be herself, to find her own identity and to share her thoughts with someone who understands her. She wants someone to see her instead of trying to make her into what they think she should be. With the strange boy across the road she finally finds someone who accepts her as an individual, who is as unique as she is. Together the two find comfort from the outside world, but they will also have to deal with many obstacles and strong opponents if they are to be friends. Their relationship is probably going to end badly and is quite likely not good for them in the long run – but for now, they are content, happy and stronger because they have one another.

The Museum Of Whatnot

This wasn’t one of my favorites of the stories, although it wasn’t bad, I just didn’t feel it had as much of an impact as the others. It follows a woman who is curator of the Museum of Whatnot. It’s basically a place to show off strange collections of junk that people have accumulated throughout their lives. My grandfather washes, folds and saves every piece of tin foil he’s ever used – but when he needs a piece he always uses brand new foil! So my grandfathers’ gazillion folded squares of tin foil would be a perfect example of what you’d see at the Museum of Whatnot. Oh right, back to the story. So the woman who is the curator (and only employee) at this museum of useless junk, she actually lives her life the exact opposite way. She wants no useless material things in her life.

A man himself is junk and all his life he clutters the earth with it … he lives in it. He loves it. He worships it. He collects it and stands guard over it.
- William Saroyan, 1952

That’s the epigraph found at the beginning of the story and the female curator believes that this type of worship is what dooms a person. You cannot own stuff, the stuff owns you. So it’s very strange to see how she feels about being the caretaker of hundreds of other people’s junk, and how she reacts to a man who visits the museum religiously.

Worst-Case Scenario

What a triumphant way to end off this collection. This one is another of the stories that packs a punch. The narrator of this story is a twenty-something man who works as a field agent for Worst-Case Scenario Inc. His job takes him to homes and companies where he does an inspection and then calculates the possible disasters that could occur upon the premises. In the average family home there are literally millions of horrible things that could happen, resulting in injury or death. But he can only predict what can happen, he does not know the necessary calculations to prevent the disasters from happening. The positives of knowing what could happen, do they make life better or worse? This is something that he will need to decide. Is a life lived in constant fear really a worthwhile life? Maybe it would be better to just not know and let life run it’s course.

Final Thoughts 

Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth was an unbelievable collection of stories, full of thought-provoking situations, and emotionally sincere characters. Each story made me feel like a voyeur peeking into the private lives and thoughts of strangers. The feelings the author explored were natural, wonderful, disturbing and touching. Kevin Wilson is a new to me author that I will be looking forward to reading more from. This collection of short stories will go onto the shelf with my other beloved collections by Mary Gaitskill, A.M. Homes and Amy Hempel, where I think it will feel perfectly at home.

About The Author

Kevin Wilson's writing has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere, and has twice been included in the anthology New Stories from the South: The Year's Best. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts, and teaches fiction writing at the University of the South, where he also helps run the Sewanee Writers' Con­ference. Wilson was born and raised in Tennessee, and he lives there with his wife, Leigh Ann Couch, and their son, Griff.

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6 comments:

Vasilly said...

These stories sound so good! I especially love your description of Birds in the House.

Lady Lazarus said...

Wow, these all sound so good :-D. Great review.

naida said...

this collection does sound good. the Birds In The House and Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth sound very interesting. great review :O)
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Nymeth said...

You pretty much had me at Southern Gothic ;) Seriously, these stories sound unusual in the best possible way. And I haven't been reading enough short stories this year.

Trish said...

Ok, well maybe you and Nymeth can explain to me what Southern Gothic is. :) At the sound of the phrase I was really intrigued, but I'm not sure I know what that is. I have to admit that I do love peering into other people's lives, though--as creepy as that sounds. This one definitely has my attention!

Zibilee said...

A great review! I have been looking for something different in the area of short stories, because most leave me disappointed and this collection seems really unusual and eclectic. Thanks for the heads up on this one, it's going on the wish list.