Judging a Book By Its Cover – Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

Written by Gillian Ramos
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I like this Kevin Wilson fella. His stories make me feel a little less crazy. See, I read this book while I was in the process of applying for grad school and that is a maddening experience in and of itself. Somewhere between finishing a not-totally-awful draft of my portfolio piece and tearing my personal statements to shreds, I sat back and asked myself, “What the hell is going on in my mind?”

It’s one of those questions we have to ask ourselves from time to time. We live in a society that has rules, even though those rules change all the time. We have our beliefs and inner desires about how the world should function, how much simpler things would be if we were making the rules. Us writerly types exercise our relatively harmless tyranny in our work, laying out the ground rules for our imagined worlds and having our characters function within those rules. Sometimes those rules involve raising our suicidal teenage brothers after our parents burst into flames on a subway train. Sometimes they involve working as a grandparent-for-hire. Sometimes we deal with our early adulthood angst by digging elaborate tunnels under our hometowns.

What I’m saying is, sometimes we’re Kevin Wilson and we’re a little bit kooky.

It takes a certain kind of mind to dream up a lot of these scenarios. Even though Wilson provides the lines that inspired each story in the PS section of the book (I think this is a special thing Harper Perennial does, and I think it’s wonderful), and even though he talks through his thought process, those leaps and connections are so bizarre that you have to admit that he’s doing something special. One of the back cover blurbs calls his work “surreal yet hauntingly plausible,” an assessment I agree with entirely.

Out of the eleven stories in the collection, there are six I absolutely love, three I really like, and two that are not bad, but not my cup of tea. Regardless of how I feel about the stories, I love that there is a thread that runs through all of them – coping. Sometimes it’s about rebuilding after loss and sometimes it’s about what we have to do to get through the day. It’s rarely graceful but always fascinating.

The collection starts with a bang. In “Grand Stand-In,” the elderly are hired by families to play grandparents to children who don’t know that they don’t have grandparents in their lives, whether because of death or distance. It seems like a shitty trick to play on your kids, but what else could these parents do? They want their children to have memories of grandparents. Their hearts are in the right place, even if the execution is weird and wrong.

At this point, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the kind of world Kevin Wilson lives in. Yes, there are rules, but not necessarily ones we can imagine living by – or do we already live by them without knowing? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine.

The titular story is the one that resonated with me the most because I’m at a point in my life where digging a series of elaborate tunnels under my hometown looks like one of the few sensible post-college options left. The characters derived such a sense of achievement from their digging and building even though none of the adults in their lives understood what they were doing. Sometimes this is how it feels when I explain my writing to my parents; they’re supportive of the fact that I’m doing something with my time, but I don’t always come away with the sense that we understand each other.

Okay. I’ve put this off long enough. I’ve written 600 words without discussing the cover. You guys ready? I hate it. I didn’t at first because you have to admit that it’s eye-catching. The color scheme is simple and cool, the shapes and arrangements of all the car parts hold your attention (I didn’t realize they were car parts at first glance). But after reading the book, I think it’s awful. The fact that the title of the collection is also a story title and the car parts are an element from another story is driving me up a wall.

I don’t know what I’d change, though. The red, black, and white are striking. Of all the titles, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth feels the most all-encompassing. The four-square of tires on the front cover is repeated throughout the book, and it’s really cute. I guess that’s why Laura Kaeppel gets paid the big bucks for book design and I don’t.