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With Wit And Sadness, 'Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine' Has Echoes Of Salinger

I've been a fan of Kevin Wilson's writing since 2011, when I read his debut novel The Family Fang. That novel delved into the life of a husband and wife pair of performance artists who worked their young children into their pieces. Without being pat about it, Wilson drove home the realization that every family constitutes its own rag-tag troupe of performance artists and that children are mostly at the mercy of their parents' "acts."

Family was also a concern in Wilson's second novel, Perfect Little World, about a Gilligan's Island-type collection of adults and children who participate in an experiment about child rearing.

What I love most about Wilson's writing is that he'll start off with these goofy, almost sitcom-type contrived premises and from there create stories that knock you out with the force of their emotional truth. That distinctive sweet-tart flavor of Wilson's writing is triple-concentrated in his new short story collection, Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine.

Take the opening lines of the very first story, called "Scroll Through the Weapons." A young man named Cam is narrating:

Whoa. Just as we're taking in that mess of information about the quality of the relationships here, we meet those aforementioned kids, whom the narrator describes as "as close to feral as you can get, like animals dressed up in camouflage jumpsuits." The most disciplined is the oldest girl, who's around 14. She's obsessed with a video game about the apocalypse, where she has to try to kill zombies with weapons like "a baseball bat with nails in it."

At first, Wilson, seems to be riffing on the old "decay of the family" theme, but his story grows more nuanced so that when Cam again looks at that tough teenager playing her vile video game, his reaction shifts into a commentary on the tragic nature of life:

In ingenious ways, all the stories here are about surrender, whether they're about a character's surrendering to loss or human failing. For instance, there's a quiet stunner of a story called "A Signal to the Faithful," about a sensitive, fatherless boy named Edwin and the troubled priest who befriends him. Contrary to expectation, nothing sexual happens; but, a game of make-believe the two play together is devastating in the way it exposes the pain that lives within the emotionally stunted priest.

Other stories, like "Housewarming" and the title story feature parents who've surrendered to the knowledge that their angry adult children are beyond saving.

In that title story, a mom gets a phone call from her son, a once moderately successful rock musician whose band, Dead Finches, has just broken up. Much to her dread, the son moves back home. A narcissist, the son thinks the end of his musical career is a unique blow, but his widowed mom knows otherwise: "She understood exactly what was happening, that he had devoted his life to something that had ended before he was ready. ... She knew what it felt like."

All the while I was reading Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine, I kept hearing one of Holden Caulfield's signature lines in my head. Remember how Holden is always saying variations of, "That killed me" about people or books that deeply affect him? There's a lot of Salinger in Wilson's writing — the wit, the vulnerability and the cosmic sadness. And, these new stories of Wilson's are something else; they're funny, raw and beautiful and, for sure, they killed me.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.