Since restrictions from COVID-19 have me spending less time wandering the mall and more time reading at home, I finally have time to tackle books on my to-read list as well as a few recommendations from others. Kevin Wilson’s Tunneling to the Center of the Earth falls into the latter column. His collection of stories should not be approached as a one-time read, enjoyable at the time but undeserving of a second thought. Each of Wilson’s short stories left behind a distinct image, like some imprint from silly putty that’s tricky to get out. Even weeks after my initial reading, I continue to see an elderly doctor marveling over a curious collection of spoons (“The Museum of Whatnot”). I see a large room filled with Scrabble tiles while dozens of desperate bodies scurry around in search of that correct letter (“Blowing Up on the Spot”).
Wilson’s characters find themselves in memorable situations involving work, relationships, and death. His prose might be judged simple, even bland, but the images and stories are not. In “Blowing Up on the Spot,” a Scrabble factory worker, named Leonard, contemplates spontaneously combusting—just as his parents did on a date night (32). As the analytically minded Leonard explains: “One evening, riding the subway home from an evening out, my parents sat in an empty subway car and spontaneously combusted. . . . They are gone, and I can accept that, or at least I’m trying to. What I can’t get around is the question of whether it could happen to me” (32-33). In between incidents at work and rendezvous with his girlfriend, Leonard grapples with his and his parents’ fate. Eventually, Leonard’s musing leads him to reconsider his job at the factory since his work takes more precedence in his life.
Wilson’s stories explore more than just working life. Tunneling to the Center of the Earth presents relationships and death as natural events rather than themes suitable for rom-coms or Greek dramas. Wilson’s “The Museum of Whatnot” teases a cute romance between Calvin, a doctor interested in “the spoon business,” and Janey, a curator for a museum featuring other people’s junk (180). Initially, Janey’s museum responsibilities—“checking the newspaper hats for silverfish” and “realigning the framed labels of apricot jars”—dominate her life, but as the doctor’s influence increases, her duties’ relevance diminishes (170). Janey and Calvin’s relationship is less a fiery passion and more a subtle attraction that has the potential to grow into a comfy marriage. The other relationships in Wilson’s stories play out similarly—characters form mild attractions or companionships. Leonard is not hopelessly in love but he relies on seeing his love interest at the end of the day. Such passion is definitely not for fans of Harlequin.
Death is also treated nonchalantly in Wilson’s work. Leonard may be hung up over his parents’ deaths but only because he believes their loss portends his future demise. Leonard doesn’t dread his imagined death. None of Wilson’s characters face death as a tragedy—eyes forever wet with tears and thoughts dwelling on what could have been. Instead, they perceive a possibility for something new. Possibly Wilson’s most beautiful story about death in this collection can be found in “Birds in the House.” A boy called Smokey oversees competition for his late grandmother’s house, Oak Hall. His father and his uncles make one thousand paper cranes to be thrown into the air; the owner of the last crane on the table inherits Oak Hall. Wilson transforms a would-be morbid story into a thing of wonder through the swirling origami:
Birds are everywhere, flying to certain death off the edge, hovering two feet over the table, or holding fast to the oak finish. Even cranes that have already fallen to the ground have been picked up again by the fans so that it is hard to tell where anything is anymore, it’s just a thick cluster of colored paper birds. (69-70)
Smokey’s love for his grandmother creeps in between his uncles’ fighting for Oak Hall and the graceful flying paper cranes; yet, Smokey reflects more on his grandmother’s life than on her death.
While Tunneling to the Center of the Earth was written before the necessity for cloth face masks and tedious social distancing left us gasping for distraction, these stories are worth a spot on must-read lists. Although the re-release of Tunneling may be motivated by the success of Wilson’s novels, The Family Fang (2011) and Nothing to See Here (2019), we should pick up this collection for what it provides us now. Wilson’s fiction reminds us of what we’ve missed due to preoccupation with current reality. He offers a glimpse of ordinary people in odd and intriguing circumstances. Here, the elderly can become grandparents for hire or a single paper crane can lead to fortune. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson’s collection is worth a visit for those readers who want stories that linger after the turn of the last page.
Wilson, Kevin. Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Harper Perennial, 2009.