31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 11: “Blowing Up on the Spot” by Kevin Wilson

May 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

The narrator of Kevin Wilson’s story “Blowing Up on the Spot” works at a Scrabble factory and suffers from a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder that induces him to count his steps when he walks. He does this, he says, because he leads “a boring and unhappy life.” The unhappy part is accurate: Leonard lives with his brother, Caleb, in a cramped apartment above a confectionery. The brothers still suffer grief over the loss of their parents, who died when they spontaneously combusted on a subway. Or, as Leonard puts it, “Three years ago, my parents blew up.”

A thumbnail plot synopsis makes Wilson’s story sound like a kind of low joke: Tony Shaloub’s character from Monk wanders onto the set of Joe Flaherty and John Candy’s SCTV talk show Farm Film Report (“May the good Lord take a likin’ to you, and blow you up real good”). But Wilson’s more outlandish elements serve as a vehicle for a story that traffics in melancholy, paralysis, and loss.

Leonard spends his days in the factory sifting through mounds of Scrabble tiles, searching for the letter Q. “There are five large sorting rooms in the factory, each one filled with one hundred workers who sort through a mountain of wooden tiles, which fall in clumps from an overhead chute.” The work is menial, monotonous, physically draining, and ill paid (in addition to a base hourly wage, Leonard receives a bonus for every Q he finds, which is hard on him, since with only one Q per game set, there are proportionately fewer tiles with his designated letter to be found). In other words, in its basic characteristics, Leonard’s job exemplifies the kind of drudgery and frustration most people – blue-collar workers and office drones alike – are subjected to every day. There is absurdity here, to be sure – the Scrabble factory employs two different people to collect blank tiles and “defective” tiles with nothing on them – but it is not exaggerated that much beyond the absurdity of much quotidian life in our modern, industrial economy.

The death of Leonard’s parents is perhaps another matter, although like all good fabulists, Wilson grounds this uncommon occurrence in the trappings of realism:

One evening, riding the subway home from an evening out, my parents sat in an empty subway car and spontaneously combusted. A subway guard found them later that night, the upper half of their bodies charred beyond recognition. It was the first recorded double spontaneous human combustion in history, which we unfortunately heard several times over the following weeks. Their death was featured in a special hour-long episode of Luminous Mysteries of the Unexplained, but I didn’t watch.

The language here is clinical, detached, and focuses on the kind of concrete details that allow a reader to suspend disbelief at least for as long as the story is unfolding. A description of another instance of spontaneous combustion later on in the story is couched in similarly clear and specific detail:

A woman in Canton, Ohio, spontaneously combusted last night. Her neighbors found her this morning, a pile of ashes and undamaged extremities on her easy chair. The ceiling above her had fire damage, but a newspaper at the foot of the chair wasn’t even singed. The chair was only superficially burned. A paranormal expert talks to a reporter, demonstrating how a spontaneous combustion victim explodes internally, leaving the surroundings virtually unharmed. He burns a candle made of hog’s fat to show how the body, after the initial explosion, burns its own fat until only ashes remain, ashes that are more fine, more powdery, than cremated remains.

Leonard fixates on his parents’ death as resulting from an “explosion,” which has a metaphorical connection with two of the ways he imagines their demise came about. In one version, the two are engaged in a heated argument, and it is the force of their anger that ignites the spark inside them. In another, they are consumed with the fires of passion, and it is this heat that provides the accelerant for the combustion. Leonard’s third and final conception – “the way that makes sense” – has his parents, “who love each other most of the time,” returning home “after a fine meal and an average movie.” Leonard imagines “a flash, a burst of heat,” and his father pulling his mother close “because sometimes it just makes sense to hold on like that.” Here, the extremes of anger and passion disappear and the parents are depicted as a typical couple, loving and thoughtful “most of the time;” the “fine meal” they have shared is leavened by the “average movie.” In Leonard’s preferred version of events, his parents were just ordinary people living ordinary lives until they succumbed to something extraordinary. Extraordinary things happen, but Leonard places his faith in his parents’ essential normalcy.

This mixture of naturalism and the fantastical is essential to Wilson’s approach, because it allows the author to inject emotional resonance into his story almost without the reader realizing it. So caught up are we in the oddities of the Scrabble factory and the parents’ strange fate that we barely notice how deeply we’ve come to care about Leonard, and the existential loneliness that drives him. In the story’s final stages, when he makes a decisive break with the life that has been holding him paralyzed, the emotional effect comes almost as a surprise. This takes a deft hand and a light touch. Notwithstanding all the bizarre material that precedes it, Leonard’s final, admittedly small epiphany is entirely earned: “It makes me smile to finally understand … that we have only the things we are given, and we must be thankful for them, the tiny, almost imperceptible feeling on our fingertips.”

Comments are closed.