Kafkaesque absurdism, Southern Gothic, domestic dysfunction, sci-fi playfulness—throw it all in a blender, and what comes out will look something like Kevin Wilson’s new story collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. Though better known for his novels, The Family Fang and Perfect Little World, the Sewanee-based writer first established his reputation as a master of the short story. A decade has passed since the publication of his first story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Wilson’s gift for the form has aged well.
In style, the collection is divided between what used to be called dirty realism—moody tales of sordid lives, though those here are infused with Wilson’s knack for levity, even in the most dismal circumstances—and magical realism. In “Scroll Through the Weapons,” a young man accompanies his girlfriend to care for her nieces and nephews while her sister is incarcerated for stabbing her deadbeat husband with a kebab skewer. They encounter a scene of abject squalor, with the younger children “as close to feral as you can get” and the oldest obsessively playing a zombie-apocalypse shooter game on her computer. Wilson draws powerful meaning out of the girl’s compulsive gaming: “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 other stories in this vein follow similar trajectories, each imbued with both Wilson’s oddball sensibility and the pervasive yearning of thwarted lives. In “Housewarming,” Wilson frames a father’s stoic attempts to rescue his mentally-ill son around the task of extracting a deer’s carcass from a pond in winter. In “Sanders for a Night,” a mother tries to dissuade her traumatized son from his plan to dress as his deceased brother for Halloween. In “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine,” a widow takes in her drug-addicted adult son after the dissolution of his one-hit-wonder rock band. In “A Signal to the Faithful,” an altar boy finds himself repeatedly fainting during Communion: “Was this life, Edwin wondered, the constant betrayal by your body, the ceaseless withstanding of embarrassment?”
Wilson’s acerbic prose style is chatty and loose, punctuated with moments of startling lyricism and insight. His penchant for quirky characters and offbeat conceits makes the mundane feel fresh and the pitiable sympathetic and endearing.
Wilson shines brightest, however, in the magical-realist stories. “The Lost Baby” begins with a premise based on every parent’s worst nightmare—the abduction of a child—but veers into hallucinatory territory in the story’s denouement. In “Wildfire Johnny,” a teenage slacker happens upon a straight razor and a note explaining its magical properties. “You may travel twenty-four hours into the past,” the note reads. “To do so, simply take the blade and cut open your throat.” The uses to which the boy puts this bizarre time machine lead into unpredictable territory and reveal startling truths.
Though conceptually diverse, all the stories in Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine revolve around a unifying theme. “Perhaps this was how bad decisions worked,” Wilson writes. “They happened so quickly and felt so unreal that you didn’t really care about the repercussions until it was too late. But a thing probably happened whether you wanted it to or not, good and bad, and you either allowed it to happen, or you fought it off long enough that you felt absolved of the eventual outcome.”
In a life defined by bad decisions both made and suffered, perhaps the best one can hope to do is to tell the stories of those decisions with wit, insight, compassion, and at least a shred of hope. Stories won’t keep us from screwing up, and they won’t save us from being hurt by the screw-ups of those we love, but a writer as nimble and generous as Kevin Wilson reminds us that a great story can assure us, at least, that we’re not alone.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.