What an excellent epigraph Kevin Wilson has chosen to open his debut collection of stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: “There is nothing in this warm, vegetal dusk / That is not beautiful or that will last.” Lovely, just lovely.
Like the strange workplace stories of George Saunders that Kevin Wilson says inspired this piece, “Grand Stand-In” details the last few weeks of a woman in the business of “standing in” as a grandmother. In other words, the narrator is a grandmother for hire, which is a compelling idea initially, but one that the story too forcefully attempts to make real. The terminology and explanations of the narrator’s job are stiff and roughly-stitched, as if the occupation Wilson has created has been grafted too hastily onto our actual economic marketplace. Obviously, the story is not supposed to be a comfort (as it deals with confronting one’s own replaceability and inevitable death), but the loads of business jargon unnecessarily hyperbolize and thereby cloud the emotions the story sets out to explore, which is unfortunate. And though the narrator is likable enough as she comes to terms with her job and her life, there are a few scenes in which the narrative falters because she is just too aggressive to be believable.
“Blowing Up On The Spot”
Unlike “Grand Stand-In,” this story succeeds in its peculiarity because it does not make any apologies for its being so curious. It is about a young man who works at the Scrabble tile sorting factory looking for Q's, and whose parents spontaneously combusted on the subway. He lives with his younger suicidal brother and wonders if he, too, will blow up one day unannounced and, as entertainment, counts his steps everywhere he goes.
The legs of this story are the very many superb passages spliced into its short span. Take this description of the narrator’s girlfriend, for example: “Joan emerges from the kitchen carrying a tray of chocolate turtles. Joan’s hair is shiny black and falls pasts her shoulders. Her eyes gleam brown like caramel and when she catches my gaze, her smile creeps across her face in small increments, as if her happiness starts in one place and slowly moves out in all directions. She holds up one of the chocolate turtles and lets me take a bite. Pecans, chocolate, and caramel mix together in my mouth and I taste Joan’s fingertips on my tongue.” That is really nice, and sexy. Or, take the brother’s second suicide attempt: “Caleb has tried to kill himself twice in the three years since our parents died. The last time, he slit his wrists with a Swiss Army knife during practice and dove in the pool to swim a hundred-meter freestyle, trailing a cloud of blood behind him.”
There are more like this throughout the story, but you should come across them yourself, like happily stumbling into a meadow. When things are written this well, we more easily forgive and begin to enjoy any absurdness. The story ends up coming together like a tiny and beautiful painting of an impossibly strange animal, sort of like some exquisitely-rendered owl with a rack of antlers and oversized cougar paws.
“The Dead Sister Handbook: A Guide For Sensitive Boys, Volume Five (Laconic Method to Near Misses)”
[Full disclosure: this tentacle of PDXWD loves almost everything written in or using the second-person “you.” We even wrote a degree-earning piece of writing on the use of the second-person “you” and are without fail attracted to stories that are written fully, or almost entirely, in this way.]
This story is written in the second person and it is excellent. Composed of paragraphs that are supposed entries in a handbook for sensitive boys concerning the death of their sisters, it does little in the way of adhering to narrative structure or achieving linear progress--structure and progress within the piece occur through parenthetical references to other entries in the handbook itself, which unfolds as a gorgeous interlacing of anecdotes, warnings, and remembrances. Here is a sample entry, “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.” This is just brilliant and you know you like this. You should read more stories like this one.
More to come...from the park benches of New York City.