Kevin Wilson’s new short fiction collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine is pretty good; it showcases his talent and imagination. The stories feel more finished than his previous ones, but I am slightly sad about it.
I met Kevin Wilson when I was fifteen at my creative writing camp at Sewanee, University of the South. One of the books we were supposed to read before camp was his debut short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Wilson was young and extremely awkward. When he read, it seemed like no one expected his voice to sound the way it did, least of all him.
I thought he was brilliant and under appreciated, but by that time he had already published his debut novel, The Family Fang, and Tunneling to the Center of the Earth had been decently well reviewed, so he wasn’t quite the unrecognized genius that I thought he was. I think it was how anxious and totally bizarre he seemed that made me love his equally anxious and totally bizarre writing even more.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is an amazing collection. In Go Fight Win a pretty girl with a passion for model building joins her high school cheerleading team to please her mother, but instead finds friendship in her wild twelve year old neighbor. The Dead Sister Handbook is structured as a how-to guide for young boys who have lost their sisters, taking childish fears and suspicions to the extreme. Mortal Kombat is one of the strongest pieces, written with a touch more darkness and realism than the others. Scotty and Wynn are high school quiz bowl partners, spending their lunches practicing in the AV closet of the library. They have no other friends. Ultimately, they share a kiss and the complicated knot of emotion resulting from that one action simultaneously pushes them apart and tugs them together. In Blowing Up on the Spot (my favorite) the narrator works in a Scrabble factory, sorting letters, paid by the number of Qs he can find. His parents spontaneously combusted, leaving him to take care of his suicidal, perpetually chlorinated younger brother. He imagines the moment they combusted, wondering if it was because they loved each other too much, or if it was because they had fallen out of love, or if they were simply content. Whatever the situation, he knows that it had to do with his parents’ feelings for each other. And then, throwing caution to the spontaneously combusting wind, he falls in love.
When I read these stories for the first time, they were pumped full of kind of imagination that I hadn’t seen before. It was the perfect thing to feed wannabe writer kids who considered themselves too good for YA books. It was surreal and weird and full of (literally) explosive emotion and young people about to grow up. Nothing felt very concrete, the details rendered nothing physical. These characters were not ones you could meet, the worlds not ones you could enter, you could only dip your face in and let all of it swim up to you. And for some that’s a criticism, but it was something that I enjoyed.
So that’s what I was ready for when I picked up my new copy of Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine. I had read The Family Fang and it was funny and weird, but Wilson had to conform to the restraints of novel writing, the same kind of energy infused in his stories wasn’t sustainable for something of that length. I was ready for some zing.
The characters in Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine are less on cusp of adulthood and more like caregivers; the collection focuses on the relationship between a parent and child. In Housewarming a father wades out into a freezing pond to retrieve a dead deer for his incessantly angry son, reflecting on everything in their relationship that has brought him to this point. Sanders For a Night delves into the complexity of grief when a young mother tries to tell her son why he can’t dress as his dead older brother for Halloween. In the titular story, an elderly woman lets her grown son move back in when his indie band breaks up. Some of these stories still hold the explosive emotion of the previous collection, but often the most difficult emotions are suppressed, subtle, unspoken. They are presented in the same way parents try to hide these sorts of things from their children, in the quiet and fearful way we go about hard things with the people that we love the most.
There are stories that don’t fit the parent-child theme. No Joke, This is Going to Be Painful gives off a Silver Linings Playbook vibe, looking at that friendships of settled young couples, when a destructive young woman moves in with her sister and her husband only to seduce the husband of her sister’s best friend. Wildfire Johnny is about an average white guy, whose success comes from white privilege and a magic razor that allows him to travel back in time 24 hours if he slits his throat.
It wasn’t until I had read the penultimate story, The Horror We Made, that I realized what my problem with the collection was. It’s not the story itself, which is about a group of teenage girls having a slumber party. They’re not cool girls and they’re not totally uncool girls, a category all of us have probably fallen in at one point or another. Fueled by drugs, sugar, and the rush of being up all night, they film their own horror movie. They vomit fake blood, flirt and fend off Wolfgang, the older brother and camera-man, and relish in the childishness of what they are doing.
I read that story on the beach, a little sun dazed and dehydrated, so it took me a minute to place the overwhelming sense of deja vu was that had washed over me upon reading the first few sentences. It was the same story that Kevin Wilson had read to us at Sewanee, four years earlier. And I felt really weird about that. It’s been four years since I first heard that story and at the time the characters were older than me. Now it pops up in this new book and I’m older than them?
So maybe when I say, Kevin Wilson has grown up, I really mean that I’ve grown up. I’m not an Adult or anything ridiculous like that, but I’m older, I’ve read more, written more, I’m less of a kid than I was at fifteen. Wilson clearly has too, there’s obvious growth and change in his work that comes from nine years and writing two novels. His stories are more grounded in reality now, sensory detail tethering them to the real world. The imagination that he adds has less the effect of absurdity. Everything is more polished, cleaner.
When I picked up the Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine I had the expectation of the same unfinished, dreamlike, wild stories that I got in the first collection. I thought it would bring me back to that time when I was so enthused about writing and about meeting an author. And it did, but only in the sense that I realize that I’m older now and it’s not the same. There’s a little less magic to it, like how waking up on Christmas morning feels different than when it did when you were seven.