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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories Paperback – Deckle Edge, March 31, 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Four mutually loathing brothers fold hundreds of paper cranes for a contest to determine who will own the family plantation house. A young man counts every step to and from a factory in which he winnows the Qs from heaps of new-minted Scrabble tiles. Three new BAs spend months after graduation tunneling beneath the hometown of one of them. A professional substitute grandmother gets queasy about her new family when she discovers they also retain a faux child. That last story, “Grand Stand-In,” is the creepiest in the book, though the bad-dream pulp-noir exercise, “The Shooting Man,” is a close, gritty runner-up. Two stories of teens and sex, “Mortal Kombat” and “Go, Fight, Win”—the only third-person narratives here—express great though measured sympathy. Wildly imaginative in the manner of new weirdness fiction (see Feeling Very Strange, 2006), Wilson’s work is also warmly compassionate in tenor. He creates an appealing voice for each first-person narrator he invents, and in third person, he is flat-out magisterial, with more than a hint of the magical. Watch him closely. --Ray Olson


“Wilson’s little time-bomb fables have a surrealist zip, like miniature Magritte paintings come to life.” (Washington Post)

“Geniously surreal but affecting short stories about spontaneous combustion, Scrabble and angst at all ages. RIYL (Read if you love): George Saunders.” (Louisville Courier Journal)

“Turns the genre of Southern fiction on its head…Wilson’s fully realized characters keep the stories grounded.” (Bomb Magazine)

“A Southern writer with a bent sense of humor offers a fine debut collection of stories, some unlike anything you’ve read before. Wilson displays a marvelous sense of narrative ingenuity…Weird and wonderful stories from a writer who has that most elusive of gifts: new ideas.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“Acute and uniformly unsettling, these fictions explore themes of loss and loneliness with fresh young insight, and occasionally with a faint rainbow at the end.” (Boston Globe)

“Kevin Wilson is the unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.... Jesus Christ is this guy good.” (Owen King)

“Kevin Wilson’s stories show us a world that is both real and full of illusion…He forces us to look at our own lives in a new and slightly off-kilter way.” (Ann Patchett, bestselling author of BEL CANTO)

“I’m drawn to particular authors, folks like George Saunders and Stacey Richter and Kevin Wilson…who I know are going to kick my ass.” (Steve Almond, author of CANDYFREAK)

“Has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long, long time. Kevin Wilson’s stories not only tunnel to the center of the earth—they tunnel through the intricacies of family, love and the dark places of the human soul.” (Hannah Tinti, author of THE GOOD THIEF)

“His work shimmers…Wilson offers fabulous twists and somersaults of the imagination… As Wilson continues to dig into the texture and mystery of the world, his fiction should grow, like his best characters, in strange and remarkable ways.” (New York Times Book Review)

“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.” (Time Out New York)

“Kevin Wilson writes fiction that moves so quickly from twisted hilarity to strange, delicate beauty that you might not notice—until it’s too late—that your heart is good and broken. This collection is like the spontaneous combustion one story in it describes: urgent, amazing, and on fire.” (Alix Ohlin, author of THE MISSING PERSON and BABYLON AND OTHER STORIES)

“Kevin Wilson’s brilliant debut is full of characters you won’t be able to forget and wouldn’t want to even if you could.” (Brock Clarke, bestselling author of AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITERS' HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND)

These superb, often audacious stories rework the ordinary into surreal yet hauntingly plausible worlds, and we emerge seeing ourselves with fresh, if somewhat nervous, clarity.” (Ben Fountain, PEN/Hemingway award-winning author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara)

“There are 11 troubling, strange, offbeat tales in this collection… It’s those sharp insights that keep you reading Wilson’s unusual stories.” (The Advocate (Baton Rouge))

“These short stories by Kevin Wilson…are weird in the best way. They are bizarre notions that are fleshed out in sustained narrative by a deft maestro...beautifully rendered.” (Memphis Commercial Appeal)

“Lush with imagination, humanity, and wit. (TheRumpus.net)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1st edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061579025
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061579028
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #224,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jamey Stegmaier on April 21, 2009
Format: Paperback
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, the first short story collection by Kevin Wilson, is an impregnable force of fiction. It cannot be impregnated.

By that I mean that it's very, very good. I haven't been able to put it down the last few days.

Wilson is one of those authors who can seemingly effortlessly weave a tale without the use of fancy language or extra words. He barely even uses dialogue, and rarely a metaphor or simile (and when he does, it's perfect, i.e., when a character worries about the side effects of hair-loss medication, he muses, "My head could cave in like a rotten jack-o'-lantern").

Most of the stories have heartbreaking elements, but I was uplifted simply because I was given the chance to read them. Many of the concepts in the book have elements of humor to them, and I laughed out loud once. (Spoiler: In the titular story, a character avoids real life after college by digging tunnels under his town. When he accidentally breaks through the cinder-block walls of a neighbor's basement, startling some kids, he says, "Sorry, I must have the wrong house").

Of the eleven stories in the collection, only two miss the mark. The other nine are brilliant. My top four:

1. "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth" (as said about, three college grads avoid real life by digging. Like the new movie Adventureland, but with shovels)
2. "Grand Stand-In" (love and deception in a rent-a-grandmother service)
3. "Mortal Kombat" (two high-school nerds, in the absence of other young love, explore their blossoming sexuality with each other)
4. "Go, Fight, Win" (standard story: pretty girl moves to new town, becomes cheerleader at high school, spends free time making model cars, falls for a 12-year-old)
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I am not normally a fan of offbeat, fantastical stories, preferring fiction with realistic situations that shed insight on circumstances I might share in my own life. But Kevin Wilson, who goes back and forth between the real and surreal throughout this collection, won me over big-time. Even his often odd premises - like parents who hire professionals to pretend to be grandparents to their children - bear too close a resemblance to reality, given how many parents won't take their children to nursing homes to avoid exposing them to the harsh reality of such places. And in that story, the all too recognizable human traits - like the guilty conscience of the protagonist who serves as a surrogate grandparent -- quickly take over. When he does tell a "straight" story - like "go, fight, win" or "Mortal Kombat"- he mines some incredibly powerful and moving feelings, like isolation, detachment, and ultimately indifference to being social outcasts as the characters go about constructing their own separate, and slightly weird worlds that make more sense to them that the ordinary world they can't find a place in.

The 11 stories in the collection are:

1. Grand Stand-In - 26 pp - Great piece about a woman who works for a company that provides "surrogate" grandparents for families so they can avoid explaining to their kids when a real grandparent has died, or even more cruelly, when the "sandwich generation" couple no longer finds their parents suitable companions for their children. A very twisted world that the author gets you thoroughly engrossed in with the portrayal of a stand-in grandmother whose conscience gradually becomes plagued by the deception she helps facilitate.

2. Blowing Up On the Spot - 18 pp - Another wonderfully offbeat story.
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Format: Paperback
After I read the first entry in this remarkable collection-----which, incidentally, concerns the moral and emotional conflicts of a professional rent-a-grandma------I put the book down. Only one story a night, Terry. Pace yourself, man. This is too good to read all at once.

It really is. Wilson has a remarkable ability to get us into the heads of everyday people in surreal situations. A guy who works in a scrabble-piece factory, terrified that he will spontaneously combust, as his parents did. Half-Japanese rednecks in middle Tennessee whose late mother decreed in her will that inheritance of the plantation would be determined by an origami bird contest. A man who discovers the terrible truth behind a carnival act in which the performer appears to blow out his brains. A consultant who, for a fee, provides anxious families with computer-generated projections for potential household tragedies. No matter how facially absurd the protagonist's circumstances, Wilson sucks us right in to an entirely believable universe.

These stories are hysterically funny, often sad, and deeply humane. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

One story at a time.
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Format: Paperback
"Tunneling..." is an amazing collection of short stories by a young man with a great future ahead of him. Moving. Disturbing. Beautiful. The stories are all of these things. But most of all, they are magically human.

Oddly, in a book with characters that spontaneously explode, and babies who are born with a full set of teeth, realism still rules the day. Not the popular notion of realism, which is much closer to cynicism or pessimism, but that realism which is embodied by the idea that things never work out as well as we might hope or as badly as we might fear. True to life, the stories are unpredictable and, mostly, uplifting.

In the most disturbing story, "The Shooting Man," the protagonist allows himself to be seduced by the perverse, by what should truly be called "evil," when he insists--despite the revulsion of his girlfriend--on attending a freak show where a man will shoot himself in the face. Even after the horrifying spectacle, he cannot let go, and allows himself to be carried away from the light and love of his girlfriend to the darkness and deception of the traveling atrocity. No longer merely a spectator, he now watches the show in preparation for his own, imminent nightmarish performance.

But this story is an exception, perhaps a warning. In most of Wilson's stories the characters discover something about themselves which, good or bad, helps them to grow as people.

Wilson is as comfortable writing about men as he is writing about young women or adolescent boys (here, coming to terms with their nascent homosexuality). In his deft hands, things which might ordinarily disgust us--sucking on another person's hair, for instance--become beautiful images of unspoken bonds of love; and even "Worse Case Scenarios" (the title of another story) provide opportunities for love, discovery, and caring.

A wonderful collection. Highly recommended for those who enjoy literary short stories, magical realism, or the surreal.
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