For Kevin Wilson fans, the opening of his fourth novel, Now is not the time to panic, will look familiar: A woman named Frankie Budge receives a call from a reporter asking her about her part in a moral panic that spread from a tiny Tennessee town to the rest of America in the summer of 1996. The call has Frankie reeling…”Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, shit no in my head, a kind of spiraling madness… Because I guess I let myself think no one would ever find out.” Not that she ever got past that summer; She’s been playing excerpts of it in her head for 21 years. Now, for the first time, Frankie delves deep into her memories of her 16-year life, when she and her only friend Zeke created a cryptic work of art that unleashed all sorts of mayhem.
As idiosyncratic as that premise sounds, it’s a standard Wilson setup (or, one might say, obsession): an adult receives messages that take him back to a pivotal moment in his misfit youth. In many of his novels, we are transported to small town Tennessee by narrators who were teenagers in the 80’s or 90’s. And most of the time, the crucial moment is considered traumatic. in the The Fang family (2011), siblings Annie and Buster return to their childhood home to figure out how to rekindle their tumultuous careers and come to terms with their pasts (as children, they were constantly enmeshed in their parents’ insane performance art). in the There is nothing to see here (2019) a listless 28-year-old Lillian receives a letter from her high school best friend Madison, and we learn how she ruined Lillian’s once-promising future. In the short story “Biology,” the now-adult Patrick learns that his eighth-grade biology teacher has died, and we are transported back to the days when Patrick was a pariah and the lonely Mr. Reynolds served as savior and a warning. In “Kennedy,” the now-adult Jamie recalls an 11th grade classmate who tormented him and his only friend Ben in increasingly horrific ways.
In other words, at first glance, Wilson seems like a poster child for the trauma plot trend that the New Yorker complained the critic Parul Sehgal in a much-quoted essay this year. In the litany of recent tales of marred pasts, she argued, the foreground character tended to have the same profile: “Stuck, confusing to others, prone to sudden silences and erratic responsiveness. Something gnaws at her, keeping her lonely and opaque, until her composure is suddenly shaken and her story is exposed in a confession or flashback.” Rather than focusing on the future, Sehgal wrote, these stories take us back in time (What happened to her?). Gone are “odd edges of personality” and lanes of intrigue, deepened by imagination, expanded by attention to the outside world.
But it turns out that Wilson’s mission is to outwit the trauma plot trap, and he’s doing it with ancient energy. In story after story, he takes seemingly key ingredients for claustrophobia – damaged characters prone to rumination, flashbacks, and sloth – and conjures up something utterly imaginative and outward-looking. As if he’d never quite outgrown the hyper-confident and melodramatic pursuits of adolescence, Wilson’s fiction will have you laughing so hard you’re unprepared for the gut punch that follows.
Though many are loners, his characters rarely walk alone; He playfully brings their fears and anxieties to the surface, using unusual plots (teens inciting a moral panic) and surreal elements (in There is nothing to see here, children who burn when excited). Wilson’s protagonists are not scratched vinyl records doomed to repeat past horrors for the rest of their lives. They’re quirky, fleshed-out characters who use second chances to find meaning and connection – often through creative means. Now is not the time to panic is the heartfelt culmination of many years (and many pages) spent examining the tension between the urge to shape the world and the cost of doing so – and the juxtaposition between the disorienting and generative powers of art.
The catalyst for all of this investigation is Wilson’s own life as a writer. He was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome as an adult, and has spoken of how writing “was the thing that kept him from violent, intrusive thoughts that didn’t lead to anything good — repetitive visions, like ‘of tall buildings falling off, being stabbed, catching fire”. .” Writing these ideas on the page gave him a momentary breather and a sense of control. In his childhood, before unwanted thoughts had a label, reading served as a similar distraction. Many of its protagonists are made along the same lines, alert to the ways in which the imagination can hold them hostage and also allow them to order a world with space for them in it.
Now is not the time to panic, as Wilson has explained in interviews, is itself the product of a long-held, repetitive thought that he wanted to bring to an imaginative ending. During college, he had a summer job mindlessly typing out a long policy manual, and he started inserting random sentences just to see if anyone would notice. One day his friend—an artist he admired—suggested the words: “The Rand is a shanty town full of prospectors. We are refugees and the law is lean with hunger for us.”
The phrase, a “thrown away little silly thing,” burned itself into Wilson’s brain and became a sort of mantra he would use to calm himself years later when overwhelmed. He lent Buster, the struggling author, the words in his first novel, The Fang family, who recites them like “a prayer” while trying to write another book after a long lull. Still not finished with the sentence, a decade later Wilson has built an entire book around it.
in the Now is not the time to panic, he hands over the words to another writer character—this time with messy endings. After Frankie learns that a reporter is investigating her past, we are transported back to the summer of 1996 when a kid named Zeke moves to the “little small town” of Coalfield, Tennessee. Frankie – a downtrodden 16-year-old who knows she’s an oddball – lives with her single mother and her triplets. She and Zeke bond because they have “shitty dads” and creative ambitions (she writes a “weird girl crime novel”; he draws comics).
The two spend an unsupervised summer kissing (Zeke “tasted like celery, like rabbit food…I loved it”) and messing around with a copier that was stolen by Frankie’s brothers and hidden in their garage. They try to make art – with very few reference points. “We didn’t know anything about Xerox art or Andy Warhol or anything like that. We thought we invented it,” recalls Frankie. One day she scribbles the cryptic phrase (“The edge is a shantytown…”) on a piece of paper, Zeke adds a strange illustration, and they continue to post copies of their unsigned creation around town as if they’re on some some kind of spy mission. Soon the poster spawned imitators and conspiracy theories and even cost lives in the so-called Coalfield Panic. A terrified Zeke leaves town and Frankie, devastated by his disappearance, keeps her role a secret.
But no matter how hard she tries, Frankie can’t get past this summer. As her teens give way to her 20s, the Coalfield Panic earns the status of “one of American pop culture’s strangest mysteries” and generates a fascination far beyond her small town. It becomes the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, episodes of Unsolved Mysteriesand even one Saturday night live Sketch, “where it turned out that Harrison Ford put up the posters, even though he blamed a one-armed man.” The band The Flaming Lips are releasing a 27-song album called Gold prospectors in the shantytown. The Panic inspires emo band names and Urban Outfitters posters and an entire Bathing Ape clothing line.
Wilson’s witty depiction of a country obsessed with this bizarre contagion — and determined to capitalize on it — is also a compelling portrayal of fear. Frankie’s fear of being exposed is never far below the surface, thanks to a surrounding culture that seems like an intrusive thought, constantly reminding her of that time in 1996. That the Frankie we meet in 2017 — despite now being a successful young adult novelist and mother to an adorable child — still feels attached to that summer comes as little surprise. But in Wilson’s tale she is not simply ensnared. Whenever Frankie feels helpless, she makes a copy of the poster (yes, she saved the original) and hangs it up “to know in that moment that my life is real.” She feels anchored, not walled in, “because there’s a line going back from that moment to that summer when I was sixteen, when the whole world opened up and I walked through it.”
As teenagers, Frankie and Zeke naively engaged in lofty debates about art that Wilson captures perfectly: What kind of cultural presence does an aspiring artist need? (Frankie, feeling cut off in Coalfield, desperately seeks advice on “what other people thought was good or important.”) Who is responsible for a work of art once it’s on the air? Is the quality of the artwork or its impact crucial? But Wilson is more interested in how art and imagination affect his characters—and, in turn, himself. Above all, he is aware of their liberating potential. Like the offbeat characters he writes about, he is caught in a repetitive cycle of processing difficult events on the page: his fiction is like a series of puppets in which the themes and preoccupations of one story flow into the next, theirs Contours the same but wonderfully unique in their details. If that sounds like a writer in a rut, read Wilson’s books. You will discover unique worlds that open up.