Kevin Wilson’s ‘Tunneling to the Center of the Earth’

by STEPHANIE WHETSTONE

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth
by Kevin Wilson
Harper Perennial, 205 pp., $13.95

Who didn’t want to dig to China as a kid? I mean, what’s really inside this planet? Yeah, I know: molten rock, extreme heat, nobody could ever survive it, but that’s exactly what doesn’t matter when you imagine it. If you could dig deep enough, what would you find? Would the space and everything you found and felt belong to you?

Kevin Wilson’s stories create worlds that you might not believe if I told you. He burrows into the bizarre world of human interaction, where the truth is not so much in the physical world, but in the way the world makes us feel. You have to be there to understand, and when you read the stories in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, you are.

In “Blowing Up on the Spot,” a man works in a scrabble game factory, sorting the tiles for the elusive letter Q. The desire of a Scrabble factory worker to find the most Q’s in the sorting pile, to be successful, to create something valuable and lasting from the twenty-six letters the English language restricts us all to, is something anyone who has ever tried to write a sentence can relate to. Wilson uses all twenty-six letters with precision, wit, and often lyricism.

The narrator of “Blowing Up on the Spot,” like many of Wilson’s characters, is acutely aware of the fact that we all must die. He wants to mark the world and the people he loves in his own special way before that happens. The narrator’s parents died of spontaneous combustion and he imagines the event in many different ways. He says: “They explode, burn away, and smolder, because sometimes it just makes sense to hold on like that.”

The idea of holding so tight to someone that you get burned is important throughout the collection. “Go, Fight, Win!” shows us what happens when we love whomever and whatever we choose, in spite of what anyone else thinks. There is a battle, and perhaps a victory of adolescence, when a cheerleader falls in love with a younger, peculiar boy next door, who literally burns for her. Penny, the cheerleader, tells her mother, “I don’t like what you think is good. I don’t like cheerleading and school and other people.” Many of Wilson’s characters are discovering themselves and coming to understand that they are unique. Like Penny, they are trying to make sense of the world and find out what they want from it, and what it expects of them.

“The Museum of Whatnot,” in which a young museum guide and an older doctor contemplate how meaning is embedded in objects, seems less developed than other stories in the collection, but still is a resonant exploration of what we leave with each other when we get close. Can love be trapped in objects and, if so, can it ever be released?

“Mortal Kombat” also explores the boundaries of friendship, belonging, and love when teenage boys find love with each other. Some things can be expressed through the artificial worlds of video games that are difficult to grasp in real time. Kevin Wilson’s characters are, like many of us, fascinated with the alien world of love. Nothing could be stranger, or more real.

In the title story of the eleven story collection, “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth,” recent college graduates dig tunnels underneath their town, creating a world of avoidance, privacy, and adventure that often ceases to exist once we enter adulthood. They worry about digging too deep:

“We can’t keep digging down,” he told us. “We’ll find mole people or molten lava or some underground ocean.”

“Or China,” Amy offered. “We’ll come up in China. That would be embarrassing.”

Wilson’s characters are dumbfounded by the surface of the world. They want to understand what is going on underneath it. They are much more interested in the subtext of life and language than in supposed “reality.” As the narrator in “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” says:

Under the surface, the air was cool and slightly damp and we felt like we were moving through a haze, a dream world that held no possibility for pain or disaster.

In “Birds in the House,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, a group of Asian/Southern brothers get together at their mother’s last request, to make 1,000 paper cranes and maybe some kind of family. Through the narrator, the youngest boy of a family full of men, Wilson explores how identity and personality can skip generations and how each person is a unique blend of the history he came from. Authenticity and magic meet here.

Kevin Wilson is not from around here. But he is. He was born and raised in the South and this place is represented in his stories as exactly and nothing like the South I have known. His stories create new worlds that ought to be. They are made up of things that exist in our world, but not usually at the same time. Wilson’s stories wonder at the magic of what happens when people get together, fall in love, and spontaneously combust; how all of that makes up who we are, but also defines the space in which we live. What his stories get to is the exact detail of the emotional world we all inhabit. It is a place where anything can happen, but it seems so natural that all the locals can say is, “Well...What about that?”

STEPHANIE WHETSTONE is a lecturer in the English Department when she’s at UNC Greensboro and a fiction writer when she’s in Durham, NC. She has lost track of all the hats she is supposed to wear, but they’re around here somewhere. She went to Duke for the basketball and UNC Greensboro for the writing program. She was also a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Stephanie is from Kentucky, which is why she talks like that.