July 31, 2017KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Door to Door” by Kevin Wilson, appears in the July/August 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Many of the sentences in “Door to Door,” a story by Kevin Wilson in the July/Aug 2017 issue of KR, seem to explode with wit and surprise. So much so that often the very next sentence—delightful in its own right—is astonishing just by successfully following, by being necessary to, the one before.

Here’s the story’s opening:

Daisy was the middle sister. She was in charge of bad ideas. Jennifer, the eldest, was tasked with revising and developing these bad ideas. Ena, the youngest, simply did what she was told. More often than not, Daisy managed to force her sisters into the adventure that would get them whipped later by their mother. More important, she managed to steer them toward danger without ever being blamed for it later. Her sisters’ strange amnesia allowed her, forever and ever, to do the most damage and yet suffer the least consequences. And this afternoon was no exception. The girls wandered through their house, looking for any object that might fetch a fair price, anything that they could sell.

There’s plenty here to hook a reader’s attention. But it was “her sisters’ strange amnesia” that snared me entirely. And notice how deftly Wilson swings away from the general proposition of their bad ideas as a pattern for ongoing behavior into the particularity of a single afternoon.

Notice too the implications that though this is a story about children, the stakes will be high. Even on an average day, we know, Daisy’s bad ideas may get the sisters whipped. But this day warrants a story of its own—whipped may be the least of possible outcomes.

I’m not done with that opening paragraph, however. While each sentence may well be loaded with a little bomb—“bad ideas,” “adventure that would get them whipped,” “steer them toward danger”—the language nevertheless is simple and restrained. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. There’s not an ounce of excess. Every word counts.

The notion that American short stories should be characterized by an absolute precision and economy of diction goes back to Edgar Allan Poe. And the masters, from Hemingway to Welty, to Zafris and Saunders, have all held true. Kevin Wilson embodies the principle here.

Already we know that the three girls, with their mother off at work, are looking for items around the house that can be sold. Not so much out of need, we gather, though we soon learn they are poor. But because they’re bored. Precisely because it’s a bad idea. They seek adventure, whatever the danger. And off they set on a journey that rings with epic, part playful and part worrying, first to the familiar boundaries of their neighborhood—though clearly they, being Asian, are not particularly welcome even there—and then beyond to precincts unknown, eerie, even threatening.

Part of the delight of reading “Door to Door” is the mixture of humor and anxiety we encounter as Kevin Wilson toys with us. Yes, as we expect, the strange new precincts of the city grow more threatening. And yes, the girls arrive at last at a sinister house that might well have been their inevitable destination all along:

“Yes?” a man said. He wore black, thick-rimmed glasses and a dirty white T-shirt and black sweatpants. Even though the door was barely cracked open, Daisy could smell the sour reek of cigarette smoke.

Daisy hesitated but then bowed and unfurled the silk sheet, displaying the jumble of items, but the man opened the door wider and said, “No, wait. Not out here. Please, come in.” He was smiling now, gesturing to the empty hallway behind him, the light so dim it was hard to make out what was or not inside the house.

Most readers, I suspect, at this point will be torn between giggles at the familiar moves of a horror story and an inescapable frisson of worry and disbelief as the three sisters find themselves entering the forbidding house.

Yet whatever clichés Wilson is playing against here as they do follow this strange man into what seems his lair, I’d happily wager that no one will guess where he will lead them. And we’re only halfway through the girls’ journey.

“Door to Door” is a deliberate, though quiet, tour de force. Kevin Wilson has become a master storyteller, and here he’s showing off his chops. Only such an artist can pull off this playful and yet deeply moving mix of wit and fear, anxiety and delight, all leading to a denouement that is unexpectedly delicate in pitch. It feels just right.