Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine: Stories
- By Kevin Wilson
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- October 8, 2018
These gothic-flavored tales explore the depths of human despair and tragedy.
The 10 stories in Kevin Wilson’s Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine are tough to read. Not difficult — just tough. They’re soaked in loss and unrelenting unhappiness. That’s not to say they are cheerless; nevertheless, what humor exists in them is always dark.
The characters — who mostly live in the rural southeastern United States — are burdened with Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Sometimes the desperation is so quiet that they may find themselves shouting into the wind.
The opening story, “Scroll Through the Weapons,” sets up the unsettling tone and establishes a theme that dominates the entire collection. An unwitting outsider becomes an unwilling insider when the first-person narrator, Cam, a tattoo artist, accompanies his girlfriend, Sassy, who does piercings, to tend to her nieces and nephews after her sister, having stabbed her husband with a kebab skewer, contacts them from jail.
Cam and Sassy encounter a back yard filled with a “rusted tractor. Burned-up motorcycle parts. Elaborate pet cemetery.” Inside is no better. There’s a dead squirrel in the dryer and “dozens of half-eaten Pop-Tarts all over the house.”
In this environment, it’s not surprising to find the four children — ages 5 to 14 — looking as “close to feral as you can get, like animals dressed up in camouflage jumpsuits.” In a house littered with domestic and child abuse, Cam and Sassy attempt to clean up the physical and emotional disasters as best they can.
The oldest daughter, addicted to video games, spends her time in “hypnotic clicking,” trying to scroll to the most effective weapon — “an arc welder, a Molotov cocktail, a Bowie knife” — that would insure victory in how to “best kill something imaginary.”
Cam’s by-default avuncular advice is, “Don’t fight. Just run as fast as you can…Keep running.” It’s a concept that most characters in the rest of the stories would do well to embrace.
Halfway through the collection, “A Signal to the Faithful” offers another suggestion for survival: breathe.
This time, a 10-year-old altar boy, Edwin, constantly faints during Father Naylon’s services. It’s not clear if he is experiencing a religious awakening or is physically ill. When Edwin’s mother consults a doctor, no medical issue is found. The doctor’s advice: “Just keep breathing.”
Edwin and the reader may find that difficult to do when the Catholic cleric proposes Edwin accompany him across state lines — from Tennessee to Kentucky — to bury an aunt. Wilson sustains a taut level of suspicion about the “handsome” priest’s motives. Edwin recognizes Father Naylon as “an unhappy man who tried to make others happy [which] seemed like an impossible task.”
The impossible task in the title story, “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine,” belongs to a mother, Gina, attempting to emotionally support her 36-year-old floundering rock-star son, Adam. When his band, Dead Finches, disbands after their instruments are stolen in Portland, Oregon, Adam returns home to his mother in Tennessee. Gina realizes that the source of Adam’s “particular unhappiness” comes from a “self-absorption” that began in childhood and masquerades in misogynistic love songs.
The remaining seven stories range from a bloody, grotesque fantasy tale of time travel (“Wildfire Johnny”), to a father/son effort to restore a disheveled relationship (“Housewarming”), to a mother/daughter domestic drama (“A Visit”), to stories of a preteen’s grief (“Sanders for A Night”), other teens’ homemade slasher movie (“The Horror We Made”), a distressful story of adultery (“No Joke, This Is Going to Be Painful”), and a final tale of enduring pain over a missing infant (“The Lost Baby”).
The best (and longest) of the lot is the surreal “Wildfire Johnny.” In a reverse-fantasy version of “Groundhog Day,” it follows Trey Beauregard from age 17 to 23. Labeled as someone who “Resisted Challenges,” Trey wanders into an abandoned elementary school, where he finds a discarded straight razor, Property of Wildfire Johnny etched into its ivory handle.
There is a note promising whoever “possesses this blade will gain access to its particular magic,” the ability to “travel twenty-four hours into the past.” The catch is that the owner must slash open their throat. This will reverse the person’s life for a full day. The throat cutting can happen only once in any 24-hour period. It is also best used at the nadir of unhappiness.
For Trey, this happens a number of times over the next six years. First, after a tragic auto accident, then after a racist comment gets him suspended from a journalism job, and then when he makes “liberal” use of the razor after a food-poisoning incident.
The most significant use of the razor relates to a failed romance. Trey sees no out while stumbling through a faltering relationship. He decides to slash his throat every day for three years until he returns to the time before he met the woman he thinks he loves.
The unnerving stories in Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, though supersaturated with unhappiness, also examine what it means to be human. The only path to surviving is to keep running and keep breathing. The sad irony of the human comedy is that, more often than not, it is steeped in tragedy.
Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, journals, and online including in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the National Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, World Literature Today, the Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene, Suspense Magazine, and others. He has been a judge for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Creative Writing Contest and the Nelson Algren Literary Prize for the Short Story. His own fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received a STORY award. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.