Tolstoy would have approved: In the short story collection Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) finds an impressively wide-ranging assortment of punishments to make 10 different families uniquely unhappy. Yet it’s a thrill to read these stories, proving yet again that even bleak material can be exciting in the hands of a great storyteller.
A summary of the tales in this collection might make you think the book is depressing overall. “A Visit” features an adult daughter returning to her childhood home after an intruder assaults her 82-year-old mother. In “A Signal to the Faithful,” an altar boy faints during church services. A couple’s 8-month-old son disappears in “The Lost Baby.” And in the book’s grisliest and best story, “Wildfire Johnny,” a man finds an ivory-handled razor that allows him to travel 24 hours back in time whenever he uses it to cut his own throat.
Children fare especially poorly in these often-macabre tales, all of them set in and around Tennessee. Among the suffering children are the siblings in “Scroll Through the Weapons” who live in squalor and whose mother has been arrested for stabbing her husband with a kebab skewer.
What makes Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine moving rather than lurid is Wilson’s compassion for his characters and his beautiful writing. He has a gift for heartbreaking detail, as when he mentions a box marked “Winter Coats” that contains the possessions of a grieving mother’s dead child. Despite the bleakness of these stories, there are glimmers of hope, or at least determination, as when one character says he’ll do what he can to “protect us from anything that tried to convince us that we would not live forever in happiness.” It’s a wise sentiment from a nuanced book.