Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

For years, the rumor has been that short-story collections, which rarely sell well, are on their last legs. Luckily, Kevin Wilson didn't get wind of this. If he had, he might never have penned the gorgeous, bizarre tales that make up his entertaining debut collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. These 11 stories, by turns hilarious and elegiac, unfold like delicious, ripened dreams, and then abruptly explode into nightmares.

The quirky-haunting collection starts off with "Grand Stand-In," in which the narrator, Helen, works for an agency that rents out grandmothers to families who have lost their own. In "Birds in the House," a Japanese-American boy, the key to his family's fortune, watches his feuding father and uncles fold thousands of paper cranes in a contest for his grandmother's mansion. The stories have an excellent balance between recognizable moments and blazing imagination. "Mortal Kombat" captures two unpopular, nerdy high-school teens who play out their love video game--style, with horrifying, heartbreaking results. "Wynn feels Scotty's mouth against his, the roughness of how their lips meet," Wilson writes. "He kisses him back and then, without a sound, smashes his fist against Scotty's jaw."

Wilson does a spectacular job of maneuvering between voices and worlds, and in the process delivers a wide, convincingly erratic range of human emotion. To write such masterful stories takes a graceful eye, and, even more, a compassionate heart. Wilson has both. His disturbing, moving tales burrow their way under our skin and stay there.—David Levinson

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By Kevin Wilson. HarperPerennial, $13.99 paperback.