In “Worst Case Scenario,” the final story in Kevin Wilson’s collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, the lovelorn narrator is hired out to parents and employers to enumerate the countless ways things can go wrong at the home or workplace. After informing a mother of all the misfortunes that could befall her infant, he becomes increasingly caught up with her distraught feelings. He eventually blames himself for violating the second rule in the company handbook, “Never form personal attachments to your clients.” Rule No. 1 states, “Remember, it only gets worse.”
Judging from Tunneling, Wilson's first book, the author generally subscribes to both rules, while giving himself a little leeway to stray. He seldom seems overly attached to his protagonists, offering clinical but persuasive portraits of alienated people who either seek emotional numbness, or have already attained it. And while Wilson’s tales often hinge on darkly comedic misfortunes, including spontaneous human combustion, a few reach upbeat conclusions or find cause for optimism.
Wilson has cited the influence of George Saunders, who specializes in hilariously deadpan short stories. Saunders’ work frequently features inarticulate Americans with zero self-knowledge who labor at weird, soul-crushing venues. Wilson crafts comparably satirical careers for his characters. In the book’s introductory story, “Grand Stand-In,” an elderly woman works for the eponymous company, which bills itself as “A Nuclear Family Supplement Provider.” In effect, the narrator plays a fictional grandmother (or “Mee-maw” or “Gammy”) hired by parents who want children to have a “grandparent experience,” until one of those pesky personal attachments complicates her job.
The author shows a penchant for bizarre fantasy. In “Blowing Up on the Spot,” he envisions a worker at a Scrabble tile factory who sifts through vast heaps of tiles for the Q's. In “The Shooting Man,” another factory worker becomes obsessed with a performer who shoots himself in the head as a touring attraction. The narrator’s faux-colorful turns of phrase, along with character names such as “Guster” and “Sue-Bee,” suggest that Wilson hasn’t quite found the voice for his blue-collar characters.
The title story, “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth,” attains the quality of magic realism as three friends, all college graduates with degrees in impractical subjects like Morse Code, find purpose and transcendence by digging a never-ending series of underground tunnels in their neighborhood. It could be the subterranean equivalent to Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees, where the baron seeks to escape adult responsibilities in tree branches, instead of branching tunnels.
Paradoxically, Wilson’s two most powerful, memorable stories have the most superficially mundane subject matter by offering reasonably realistic portraits of outcast high schoolers. “Mortal Kombat” depicts two social misfits, both Quiz Bowl athletes, whose relationship takes a complicated turn that neither feels capable of processing. In the book’s longest story, “Go, Fight, Win,” a reluctant teenage cheerleader finds herself repulsed by her school’s “popular” crowd and drawn to a strange, 12-year-old neighbor with pyromaniacal tendencies.
Comparable to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, both authors use a plain prose style to capture young people’s attempts to suppress painful emotions. Saunders’ fiction may provide Wilson with an appealing example to follow, but Tunneling the Center of the Earth’s stories suggests that the young author makes a stronger impression the further he stands from his role model.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson. Ecco/Harper Perennial. $13.99. 240 pp.