Expectation fuels tension in brilliant story collection
Kevin Wilson mines eerie details to examine the toll of modern-day life
The AJC bookshelf
By Becca J G Godwin
Aug 8, 2018
The beauty and brilliance of "Baby You're Gonna Be Mine," a collection of 10 short stories, is that Tennessean author Kevin Wilson allows the context of the times to do most of the heavy lifting for him. It's tough to read his stories without thinking you know what's coming, based on the set up and in light of modern-day issues and epidemics. Even if the tale doesn't end as the reader imagines, the tension becomes the payoff .
Perhaps the best example of this is found in “A Signal to the Faithful,” a story that details the relationship between Edwin, an awkward 10-year-old altar boy, and Father Naylon, a sheepish and handsome chain-smoking priest in his late 30s. Despite the fact Edwin has started experiencing fainting spells during Mass — alarming his mother and the priest — Father Naylon asks the boy to join him on an overnight road trip to Kentucky to help perform his aunt’s funeral service.
As the boy and priest share a piece of strawberry shortcake during the trip, it becomes “impossible for Edwin to resist the urge to imagine Father Naylon as his own father,” a man who left the picture when Edwin was 3 years old. Later, he wakes up in the middle of the night to find Father Naylon downstairs, sipping from a bottle of whiskey. The two begin to play an imaginary game that stems from a shared fascination with dying. Most minds will become more suspicious with each paragraph, wondering whether motives are sour or harmless after all.
This is Wilson's second story collection, following the nearly decade-old "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth." Like his novels "The Family Fang" and "Perfect Little World," many of the stories touch on the emotional toll life events take on people and how one's selfishness can impact others, particularly family members. Possibly the only outlier is "The Horror We Made," a lighthearted narrative about the making of a film during a slumber party. It serves to show how Wilson, who teaches fiction at The University of the South in Sewanee, can nail the tone of a teenage girl who's still finding herself, just as well as he can a father who's trying to set his abusive, temperamental son on a better path in "Housewarming."
These are the kind of exacting, emotionally pointed stories that may give the reader pause before sharing with a certain friend, out of fear it could hit too close to home. The versatile Wilson inspires tears and laughter, and crafts memorable phrases that may unexpectedly pop up in the reader’s mind weeks later. For instance in “Wildfire Johnny,” a one-eyed, orange-and-black tomcat leads Trey, a stoned 17-year-old, to a magic razor before the cat disappears, prompting the observation that Trey “felt the loss as keenly as if the animal had been his childhood pet and not some disease-ridden hell spawn of his imagination.”
In a bizarre premise, the razor gives Trey the ability to travel back in time, but only by using the tool in a gruesome, uncomfortable manner. Trey, who mostly leads a “charmed and easy life,” doesn’t use the razor until he makes a mistake that carries big enough consequences to risk killing himself over. Then he begins to use the enchanted object more freely. Despite the wacky setup, it becomes a story about white privilege, regrets and the results of one’s actions.
In “Scroll Through the Weapons,” an unmarried couple helps take care of young, wild relatives after the girlfriend’s sister gets arrested for stabbing her husband with a kebab skewer. Wilson paints a vivid scene of a dysfunctional family and chaotic household, one where a room seemed to swallow an emptied can of Febreeze whole. The boyfriend, initially freaked out by the scene, starts warming up to the children. He helps the eldest, angst-ridden kid defeat a zombie video game, which seems to buoy him into believing he and his girlfriend are invincible. “We would make every object a weapon that would protect us from anything that tried to convince us that we would not live forever in happiness.”
“The Lost Baby” and “Sanders for a Night” both deal with how loss affects the remaining members of a family. In the former, a married couple’s baby is kidnapped and they struggle to cope with not knowing what happened, until a somewhat contrived development happens at the DeKalb County Public Library. The latter is a heart-wrenching tale of a boy who wants to dress as his dead brother for Halloween. His dad drinks to forget and his overworked mom “hated the fact that her grief, because it was quiet, because she worked hard to conceal it, was somehow less genuine.”
Reckless women helping to commit, or spitefully reciprocate, acts of adultery are at the forefront of “A Visit” and “No Joke, This is Going to Be Painful.”
In the collection’s title story, a mom’s boundary-crossing son returns home after his rock band’s equipment gets stolen from their van after a concert. A few tender moments are juxtaposed against bitterly dark ones: her son contorting his body as if kicking a heroin habit in the car; the mom justifying her son’s dark lyrics because “kindness always mutated just slightly inside him and came out wrong”; the memory of him slicing a mirror shard across his cheek as a 4-year-old. As in the rest of the stories, it’s the eerie details, intense moments and vivid scenes woven throughout the larger story that makes it unforgettable.