Fans of Kevin Wilson’s fourth novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, may recognise the opening scene: a lady called Frankie Budge receives a call from a reporter inquiring about her part in a moral panic that swept from a small Tennessee hamlet to the rest of America in the summer of 1996.Because, I believe, I’d allowed myself to trust that no one would ever find out, Frankie says, and she’s been repeating snippets of that summer in her mind for the last 21 years. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, fuck, no in my brain, a kind of whirling crazy,” she adds.For the first time, Frankie allows herself to delve deeply into memories of being 16 and creating a mysterious piece of art that created all kinds of mayhem with her sole buddy, Zeke.
As odd as that concept may sound, it’s a common Wilsonian setup (or, one would say, obsession): an adult hears news that transports them back to a pivotal event in their misfit adolescence. In most of his novels, narrators who were teenagers in the 1980s or 1990s transport us to small-town Tennessee. And, more often than not, the defining event is traumatising. The siblings Annie and Buster return to their old home in The Family Fang (2011) to find out how to restore their failing professions and examine their pasts (as children, they were continuously conscripted in their parents’ bizarre works of performance art).Nothing to See Here (2019) follows the listless 28-year-old Lillian when she receives a letter from her high-school best friend, Madison, detailing how Madison destroyed Lillian’s once-promising future.In the short story “Biology,” Patrick, now an adult, discovers that his eighth-grade biology teacher has died, and we are brought back to a time when Patrick was a social misfit and the lonely Mr. Reynolds served as both a saviour and a warning.In “Kennedy,” Jamie, now an adult, describes how a student bullied Ben, his sole friend, and him in the 11th grade in more terrible ways.
To put it another way, Wilson appears to be a poster boy for the trauma-plot trend decried by New Yorker critic Parul Sehgal in a widely quoted piece this year. She suggested that the character in the foreground in a litany of recent stories about shattered pasts had the same profile: “stalled, perplexing to others, prone to unexpected silences and jumpy reactivity.” Something gnaws at her, keeping her alone and opaque, until there’s a startling rupture in her composure and her history spills out, in confession or flashback,” Sehgal wrote.”Odd angularities of personality” and pathways packed with mystery, developed by imagination, and extended by attentiveness to the outside world have vanished.
wilson’s purpose, however, turns out to be outwitting the trauma-plot trap using antic energy. In tale after story, he takes what appear to be crucial elements for claustrophobia—damaged individuals prone to rumination, memories, and inertia—and concocts something completely original and forward-thinking. Wilson’s work will have you laughing so hard that you’re unprepared for the stomach punch that follows, as if he’s never totally left the hyper-self-consciousness and histrionic dreams of youth.
Though many of his characters are loners, they are rarely alone; he humorously externalises their worries and anxieties through off-the-rails stories (youth who cause a moral panic) and surreal aspects (in Nothing to See Here, kids who combust when agitated). Wilson’s characters aren’t scratched recordings condemned to relive previous horrors for the rest of their lives. They are eccentric, fleshed-out characters who embrace second opportunities to discover meaning and connection—often via creative ways. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is the sincere result of many years (and many pages) spent investigating the conflict between the desire to make a difference in the world and the consequences of doing so—as well as the push-pull between art’s confusing and productive qualities.
As an adult, he received a diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, and he has said that writing was “the thing that rescued” him from violent intrusive thoughts that went in the wrong direction, such as repeating images of “falling out of tall buildings, getting stabbed, and setting on fire.” Putting these ideas on paper provided him with a brief reprieve and some sense of control. Reading provided as a comparable diversion for him as a youngster, before the unwelcome ideas were labelled. Many of his characters are cast in the same mould, aware of how imagination can both hold them prisoner and allow them to organise an universe with room for them
As Wilson has said in interviews, Now Is Not the Time to Panic is the result of one long-held looping concept that he intended to bring to an innovative conclusion. He had a summer job blindly putting out a huge policy handbook during college, and he began inserting strange sentences simply to see if anyone noticed. “The edge is a shanty village full with gold hunters,” a friend, an artist he loved, proposed one day. We are fugitives, and the law is starving for us.”
Now Is Not the Time to Panic, as Wilson has said in interviews, is the result of one long-held looping concept that he intended to bring to a creative conclusion. During college, he had a summer job blindly typing out a huge policy handbook, and he began inserting strange sentences simply to see if anyone noticed. One day, a friend, an artist he respected, proposed the words: “The edge is a shanty town packed with gold hunters.” We are fugitives, and the law is hungry for us.
Wilson’s brain was seared with the term “tossed-off little foolish thing,” and it became a type of chant he used to calm himself when he was stressed, even years later. In his debut novel, The Family Fang, he lends the lines to Buster, a struggling writer who recites them like “a prayer” as he tries to create another book after a long slump. Wilson has developed an entire book around the word a decade later, proving that he is still not done with it.
He gives the words to another literary character in Now Is Not the Time to Panic, this time to chaotic ends. When Frankie discovers that a reporter is investigating her history, we are transported back to the summer of 1996, when a young man called Zeke goes to the “dinky little town” of Coalfield, Tennessee. Frankie, a repressed 16-year-old who is fully aware of her oddity, lives with her single mother and triplet brothers. She and Zeke bond by having “bad dads” and artistic ambitions (she’s working on a “strange lady detective novel,” while he makes comics).
Zeke remarks that the kiss “tasted like celery, like rabbit chow… I enjoyed it,” and the two spend an unsupervised summer experimenting with a copy machine that Frankie’s brothers stole and hid in their garage. They’re attempting to create art with very few references. “We had no idea of Xerox art, Andy Warhol, or anything like that.” Frankie says, “We assumed we made it up.” She scrawls the cryptic line (“The edge is a shantytown…”) on a sheet of paper one day, Zeke adds a bizarre image, and they walk around town posting copies of their unsigned masterpiece like they’re on some sort of espionage operation.The billboard quickly inspires copycats and conspiracy theories, and even leads to the Coalfield Panic. Zeke flees town, and Frankie, distraught by his absence, keeps their participation hidden.
But, no matter how hard she tries, Frankie can’t escape this summer. As she enters her twenties, the Coalfield Panic becomes known as “one of the oddest mysteries in American pop culture,” drawing interest well beyond her little community. It is the topic of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, Unsolved Mysteries programmes, and even a Saturday Night Live parody “where it turned out that Harrison Ford was putting up the posters, albeit he blamed it on a one-armed guy.” The Flaming Lips release Gold-Seekers in Shantytown, a 27-song album. The terror inspired the titles of emo bands, Urban Outfitters posters, even a whole Bathing Ape clothing line.
Wilson’s hilarious portrayal of a society preoccupied with this strange contagion—and willing to profit from it—serves as a fascinating image of fear. Frankie’s fear of being revealed is always there, owing to an ambient culture that functions like an intrusive thought, continuously reminding her of that day in 1996. It’s hardly surprising that the Frankie we meet in 2017 feels linked to that summer, despite being a successful young-adult author and mother to a gorgeous child. But, according to Wilson, she is not merely entangled. When Frankie is feeling dissatisfied, she creates a replica of the poster (yes, she has conserved the original) and puts it up to “know, in that moment, that my life is true.””There’s a line from this moment all the way back to that summer, when I was sixteen, when the whole world opened up and I went through it,” she says.
As teenagers, Frankie and Zeke acted out lofty conversations about art, which Wilson perfectly captures: What type of cultural experience does an aspiring artist require? (Frankie, feeling alone in Coalfield, is yearning for advice on “what other people felt was excellent or significant.”) Who is responsible for an artwork once it has met air? Is it the quality of the artwork or its effect that is important? Wilson, on the other hand, is more concerned in how art and imagination affect his characters—and, by implication, himself. Above all, he recognises their liberating potential.Like the oddball characters he writes about, he is locked in a loop of digesting tough events on the page: his writing is like a collection of nesting dolls, the themes and preoccupations of one narrative flowing into the next, similar in shape but marvellously distinct in particulars. Go read Wilson’s works if it seems like a writer stuck in a rut. Unique worlds will reveal themselves to you.