Many of Kevin Wilson’s stories in his collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are structured around the plausibility of the absurd. Spontaneous human-combustion, scrabble-tile sorting as a profession, and paper cranes determining an inheritance sound feasible and not at all unlikely. The oddity of the events that Wilson uses as scaffolding for his stories does not interfere with the sharp insights into the composition of his characters.
At the start of the collection I wasn’t entirely wooed by the frequent transpiring of the weird. For a few stories it felt a little like a ploy. Not halfway into the collection, however, my mind was changed. When the stories are seen as a whole, each odd twist of plot and personality fashion themselves into a comprehensive and well-executed examination of individuality.
Wilson’s stories are amusing, and more suddenly heart-breaking. He has a light touch with the irregular angles of the personalities he captures. Those who appear in his stories are somewhat fragile. They operate slightly outside the predictable boundaries of society. But they are functioning, some with grace, some patience, some despair.
The two friends in “Mortal Kombat” are outsiders due to the stereotypical marks of the geek. Their predilection for obscure knowledge removes them from the sphere of popular high school culture. They spend their lunch hour locked in the library together, quizzing each other on historical and pop trivia. While waiting for the interminable span of high school to come to a close, the boys amuse themselves with each other and video games. By proximity and accident they move from playful physicality to a rough embrace. The revelation of this intimacy disrupts their friendship. Neither fully understands his feelings; trepidation and electricity edge their discovery. Within the space of this story Wilson delves into the uncertain territory of adolescence. A turbulent world of choice lies beneath the surface and it is impossible to exclude anything from the realm of possibility.
Like the boys in “Mortal Kombat”, others of Wilson’s protagonists are reluctant if not entirely opposed to forming attachments. They are aware of the repercussions of connections and reluctant to address them. One woman works in a museum dedicated to the odd collections of other people (spoons, rubber bands, tinfoil, etc.) while refusing to keep even the odd book for herself. Another woman works as a stand-in grandmother for various families; she enjoys the occupation but has no desire to create a family of her own. In the story that titles the collection, three recent college graduates dig a complex maze of tunnels underneath their town. For the moment they have nothing better to do and the retreat into the dark depths of the earth provides solace from the emptiness above. The world is open to these people but it is up to them to find their way into it.
It is difficult not to feel alongside the people that populate Wilson’s stories. In each he channels a different mode of survival, confusion, joy or triumph. There are many who are adrift and those that find anchors are to be envied.
All of Wilson’s characters are in search of something. Understanding, significance, and entrance reside at the center of their pursuits. The remarkable aids them; retreat and participation abets their cause in various measure. It is not for everyone to find what they seek. The satisfaction and the crucial struggle sometimes resides in the search alone.