“Three hours after she had graduated from high school, Izzy sat on a park bench next to her art teacher, Mr. Jackson, and told him that she was pregnant.”
So begins Kevin Wilson’s newest novel, Perfect Little World – a slippery little chute of a sentence, which whooshes you down and deposits you smack dab in the middle of his story’s off-kilter world. Wilson’s opening lines are often gaping rabbit holes, and his worlds are even more off their axes than Wonderland: They revolve around family.
Perfect Little World takes place in Tennessee, and its gravitational center is a young girl called Izzy. She is quiet, thoughtful, and pregnant with her teacher’s baby. Poverty, loneliness, and (you guessed it) family lead her to the Infinite Family Project, a 10-year research venture headed by Dr. Preston Grind, himself a product of a family research scheme, and life unfolds.
In this story, everything from the Project to the protagonists is dipped in eau de famille, which Wilson expertly mixes out of fear, honesty, abuse, quiet love, regret, and hope. This mixture is perhaps Wilson’s greatest genius. He is never shy about the pain his characters experience, or the ways they express it. He is equally dedicated to treating the people and relationships he writes tenderly, with feelings any reader may identify with – even if they are colored by unique circumstances that only a mad, creative genius could cook up.
One of the most touching relationships develops between Izzy and Mr. Tannehill, the quiet smoke master at the barbecue joint where she works. Their connection is so genuinely heart-warming that even a vegetarian may not completely mind that their interactions largely occur within a few feet of a steaming, split-open hog carcass.
Similarly, Mr. Wilson’s slow revelation of Dr. Grind’s past (in two words, experimental and tragic) is both brave and raw. That, again, is Wilson’s genius: He crafts characters who are both relatable and inescapably strange, then serves you their truths – what can you do but lean closer?
Those who are familiar with The Family Fang will recognize Perfect Little World as a Wilson. The narrative is similarly formed in his sweeping Well,-things-are-super-weird-and-buggered-but-I’m-going-to-muddle-through-it arch, and his characters are just as complicated and compelling. Mr. Wilson even doffs his cap, cheekily and verbatim, to one of his first novel’s central, muddy motifs: “Kids kill art.”
Though Perfect Little World is its own distinctive beast, comparisons to The Family Fang are rich. One primary example is the complementary parallel between the narrators of each book, Annie and Buster Fang and Izzy Poole and Dr. Preston Grind: Even when they are grown, Annie and Buster are child figures, grappling with the scars their parents left them, while Izzy and Dr. Grind, though both young, are parent figures, trying to give the children in their lives the most perfect childhood possible.
All told, Perfect Little World is unforgettable. Its tenderness and truthfulness will carve a place in your heart so oddly shaped that no other story will be fit to fill it. Mr. Wilson’s new novel perfectly expands the canon that he is creating – his own family project, which I hope will continue to go on, but is already infinite.
Perfect Little World will be released on January 24th. I recommend picking it up at your local independent bookstore, or Parnassus Books of Nashville – the co-owner, Ann Patchett, is Mr. Wilson’s good friend.
To learn more about Kevin Wilson, visit his website.