Thursday, May 21, 2009

From the Library: The second third of Kevin Wilson's "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth"

“Birds in the House”
This story is the strongest and most intriguing yet in the collection, due to the conflict in which it is rooted (Southern-style inter-familial loathing) and the likable protagonist Wilson has chosen to narrate it (a hopeful young boy). The premise goes: a old woman passes away and leaves her house to one of her three adult sons who have feuded long and hard. The catch: to determine which son gets it, they must compete in a contest that involves each of them folding 250 paper cranes and placing them on a table surrounded by fans on its four corners. The winner: whoever made the last bird on the table after the fans are turned on. Like its companions, “Birds” is full of excellent imagery (“The walls are soft from rot and feel like sponge against my fingers” and “Finally my father gave up, went into the house for the Colt .45, and put a bullet between the eyes of every cow still standing until he stood in a cloud of red-tinged dust,” and “The birds are flying, if only for a brief moment, and I watch a rainbow of cranes fly around the room, dip and loop and dive in the air”), though the fighting between the brothers is stereotypical in places. Overall, however, this story is the shit.

“Mortal Kombat”
This is your common teenage-boy-sex-story with a little twist and an alluring conceit. Scotty and Wynn are nerdy best friends whose “sole extracurricular activity involves traveling all over the state and competing against other very unpopular teenagers, answering random academic questions.” In short, “they do not fit into the spaces available to them.” What starts as a brief kiss between the two boys one lonely afternoon folds out into a story about each of them discovering what sexuality means to their bodies, their identities, their psyches, and moreover, their friendship. When the boys, who have each purchased a copy of that 1990s megahit videogame "Mortal Kombat" and have practiced it alone for days on end, finally sit down to play against one another, the game, as games often do, takes on significantly more meaning than what occurs onscreen.

“Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”
Goodness, this is a strange but moving story. Wilson has a penchant for splicing together the plausible with the totally implausible, caring not to distinguish or draw attention to either more than the other, and so we’re left in “Tunneling” with three recent college graduates who decide to dig a very, very deep hole in the backyard, from which they begin building a network of tunnels underneath the city. This is their life: they dig, they eat, they sleep, entirely lost and uninterested in the goings-on above ground. What an apt metaphor for post-college life and early adulthood, no? “Tunneling” is fresh and applicable (for many of us, at least) in its depiction of having to join the real world after being mired for years in useless academic abstraction.

“The Shooting Man”
This story launches and never comes back. It’s like a boomerang you throw that doesn’t adhere to the trajectory it promises and sails straight off into the distance, landing some many, many frustrating yards away. Then what happens is you don’t want to go get it because the game has been ruined; the boomerang has not behaved. Wilson admits in the interviews at the back of the book that he tried to “turn the story into something more akin to pulp, like the 1950’s horror and mystery comic books [he’d] read in high school,” and as such, he technically succeeds. So as not to fully give away the story, though, we’ll just say that the narrative hinges on a particularly disturbing circus show that no one in town can stop thinking or talking about: Maximilian Bullet, the man capable of shooting himself in the face. How does he do it night after night? everyone wonders. We’ll give you one guess.

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