NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson (Ecco, 254 pp., $26.99)
One of the most important functions of literature is to cheer you up when life is hard. Not every good book does that. Many excellent ones are sad or harsh. When you need an escape from the tsuris, pick up "Nothing to See Here," Kevin Wilson's deadpan, hilarious modern fairy tale complete with impoverished heroine, cruel princess and neglected children with magical powers.
The story is told by Lillian Breaker, and it begins in the late spring of 1995. Just turned 28, she is living in her dreadful hometown with her mean mother and working two menial jobs. When her high school friend Madison Billings, a rich girl from Tennessee now married to a senator, calls and asks her to come down and consider a job offer, Lillian has nothing to lose.
As she’s being driven from the bus station to Madison’s estate by Carl, a minion who will come to play a major role, she decides not to go into her history with his employer. “Carl didn’t want to hear any of that, so we just rode in silence the rest of the way, the radio playing easy listening that made me want to slip into a hot bath and dream about killing everyone I knew.” (Lillian seems a close cousin of Marcy Dermansky’s unapologetically imperfect heroines.)
What Lillian doesn’t want to explain is that she met Madison as a scholarship student at a fancy girls’ school, where they were bosom buddies until a treacherous act we will not disclose here. Unexpectedly, the two have stayed in touch: it seems neither ever found any other friends.
At the mansion, her exquisitely beautiful former basketball teammate Madison is waiting with finger sandwiches, sweet tea and a proposition. It seems her husband has two children, Bessie and Roland, from a previous marriage; their mother has died. They are being kept in seclusion because they have a strange affliction: they catch fire when they are upset. The flames don’t harm the kids themselves, but burn their clothes and anything they touch.
Of all the possible things to worry about in this situation, Madison and her husband are primarily concerned with keeping them out of the way of his political career. She wants Lillian to be their governess for the summer, taking care of them in a guesthouse on the property.
Lillian can barely think of the last time she interacted with a child, but the comforts of Madison’s life are sucking her in fast. Not until she meets the children and comes away bleeding does she realize what she has gotten herself into: “It was going to be like teaching a wild racoon to wear a little coat and play the piano.” Only it’s going to be much, much more than that, because love and trust will be involved. And yoga. And basketball.
When Lillian defuses a situation by dragging the kids out to the basketball court for the first time, she wonders why it took her so long. “Maybe raising children was just giving them the things you loved most in the world and hoping that they loved them, too.”
Much about parenting is revealed in Lillian’s developing relationship with her charges. The possibility of children bursting into flames doesn’t seem all that distant from the terrors of real-life parenting. Kids’ chaotic, unbounded emotions, their ability to hurt themselves and others, their propensity for wrecking the house — it’s a metaphor with legs.
As in his bestseller "The Family Fang," Wilson interweaves the bizarre and the mundane to tell a story about the damage parents do to their children. This one, with fire at its center, has the warmer trajectory. You’ll close the covers with a smile.