"Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories" and "The Family Fang: A Novel" By Kevin Wilson

Jan 25, 2017

“Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories”

Author: Kevin Wilson  

Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins

Pages: 205

Price: $13.99 (Paper)

“The Family Fang: A Novel”

Author: Kevin Wilson

Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins

Pages: 309

$23.00 (Hardcover)

In just a few days, Kevin Wilson, who teaches writing at the University of the South in Sewanee, will publish his third book, the novel “Perfect Little World.” To prepare for reviewing it, I thought to read his book of stories and previous novel.

I was moved to do so by several forces. “Tunneling” won a Shirley Jackson Award. “The Family Fang” was a “New York Times” best seller.

And Ann Patchett has been praising Wilson to the skies, calling him “a dazzling and important new writer” and describing “The Family Fang” as “genius.”

Ms. Patchett is right. Kevin Wilson, close as he may be geographically, has not been noticed much in Alabama. That must stop at once.

The 12 stories in “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” are terrific, bordering on the edge of absurd, yet one feels these things could, perhaps, happen. (No one levitates.)

The title story, like many of them, has somewhat confused and lonely young people as characters.

Two men and a woman have “just graduated from college with meaningless degrees, things like gender studies and Canadian History and Morse Code,” not applicable to the real world.

Unable to find work, they sit around and smoke pot until inspiration comes. They will go underground.

Literally.

They begin in July, digging a hole in the back yard.

The narrator tells us “My mother gave us food weekly, dropped bags of groceries into the hole in the backyard, where she knew one of us would pick them up.”

At first the goal is China, then, more realistically, after going down 12 feet or so, sideways, like miners, in different directions under the town, dumping the dirt at night in a local lake. Along the way, they find old time capsules, jars of buried cash, the body of Jasper Cooley, the missing town drunk, until, around New Year’s, they emerge, ready to face real life, such as it is.

Another strange story, “Go, Fight, Win,” tells of Penny, a lonely 16-year-old misfit who has an affair of a sort, with a boy pyromaniac, 12. Odd but in its way beautiful, it’s “Harold and Maude,” only much younger.

The lead story, maybe my favorite, “Grand Stand-In,” is not about young people at all. The protagonist works as a substitute grandmother. Fifty-six, she specializes in the “single, still-active grandmother stereotype.” Providing the grandmother experience, she will read, talk and sing to a small child whose biological grandmother is deceased, impaired or unwilling. This job can go in different ways, including of course, “dying.” 

The novel is equally weird, a comic masterpiece, but of course more fully developed. The four Fangs, including children Annie and Buster, are performance artists who stage totally unexpected public happenings. The first occurs in a mall in Huntsville where Mrs. Fang pretends to shoplift hundreds of jelly beans. Crowds gather and stare. She is taken in by the manager. There is explaining to do.

At another “public performance” or “real life squared” or “choreographed spontaneity” they distribute counterfeit coupons to a chicken restaurant and watch as hundreds go to redeem them. In another they stage a mock marriage proposal on an airplane.

Everything gets recorded.

The idea is to create spontaneous chaos which generates art. The Fangs have received NEA grants and a MacArthur. What is art is seriously discussed, with Mr. Fang insisting that everything you thought was art—painting, writing, sculpture, conventional theatre—was not: too cold, premeditated, predictable, dead. At one point, Buster entered in a child beauty pageant, in drag. He’s reluctant at first, but, as he moves through the quarterfinals, gets into it and finally wins with a howl of pleasure and tears off his wig.

Annie and Buster are inevitably damaged by these experiences. Annie becomes an actor, Buster a novelist turned tabloid journalist, both of them very confused people.

“Family Fang” is a delight, one surprise after the next, wildly imaginative. Brilliant.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.