The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers, we are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.
This quote, attributed to author Kevin Wilson’s late friend, Eric, is the guiding line of Wilson’s new novel “Now Is Not the Time to Panic.” The novel follows Frankie, a 16-year-old girl who’s less than excited to spend another summer in her sleepy Tennessee town. She meets Zeke, an aspiring artist who is moving in with his grandmother. The pair decide to spend the summer “being bored together,” which means making art and driving around with the inevitable sexual tension that comes from two teenagers spending copious amounts of time together.
While creating art with Zeke, Frankie writes Eric’s quote: The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers, we are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us. Afterward, she reflects, “It was the greatest thing that I’d ever written. I knew it right then. And I’d never write anything that good again. It sounded so perfect to my ears.”
Around her words, Zeke draws his own interpretation of the quote:
“He starts by drawing these power lines, stretching across the page like tiny scars, and once he had a sense of scale, he drew these beautiful little shacks, a whole row of them, the roofs falling in. He drew bits of detritus, an old, burned-out car, a pack of wild dogs. And then, out in the open air, he drew four beds, their headboards like Gothic cathedrals, multiple children twisted up in the sheets.”
After pricking their fingers and splattering some of their blood on the piece, they decide to make around 120 copies and hang them up around their town. The art causes a cascade effect of moral panic throughout the town and even the country. After the first poster was speculated to be related to cult activity, the art piece quickly became a symbol of contrarianism and rebellion. Frankie says that, “You saw it was happening and you either resisted it or you let it overtake you.” There is no way that everyone in Frankie’s town knew what the poster meant, but they all felt the need to react to it based on their own interpretations of the work.
Frankie and Zeke never make another piece of art, but continue to hang up copies even as chaos ensues with fights over the poster’s presence, resulting in deaths. Frankie and Zeke eventually have a falling out, putting an end to the friendship they built that summer.
Twenty years later, Frankie is an established writer. She gets a call from a journalist who has linked the art back to her and wants to publish a story. The art piece and the following public reaction was called the “Coalfield Panic of 1996,” and no one knew who to attribute the work to. After reconnecting with Zeke and doing some soul-searching, Frankie decides to let the journalist publish the story despite her fear and apprehension of the consequences of being linked to the poster.
“Now Is Not the Time to Panic” asks readers to believe in this piece of art that can only be imagined. The only description for this piece is the paragraph through Frankie’s eyes that makes it slightly difficult to believe that all of the following repercussions are realistic. It was hard as a reader to have faith in this work because we don’t actually get to see the end product. Perhaps this is the point, that art has power beyond what we can imagine or anticipate, but I found this part of the story a barrier to true engagement with the novel.
I’m curious about Wilson’s decision, as a man, to write from the perspective of a teenage girl rather than a boy. Having gone through teenage girlhood myself, Wilson’s Frankie character was not particularly convincing. It would have been interesting if he wrote this novel from the perspective of Zeke or made Frankie a boy altogether. The male friendship dynamics would have been more honest to the friendship between Wilson and his friend Eric that the book was based off of. Instead, Frankie makes decisions and has feelings that seem almost like a caricature of a teenage girl, coming off as stereotypical at times. For example, after Zeke and Frankie’s final fight she reflects, “It felt like my life was ending, like the best part of it was gone forever, and maybe I wondered if it was worth it to keep living.” Frankie had not expressed such dark thoughts before, so it was a little jarring for her to go off the deep end over a fight with her friend. I don’t think it’s impossible for male writers to capture the distinct experience of being a teenage girl, but I think Wilson would have massively benefitted from having someone who experienced teenage girlhood give suggestions on Frankie’s character.
In a review of the novel, Sloane Crosley from the New York Times wrote, “The grand themes (art, friendship, memory) sit like Vaseline on the surface of a pool, with repetition too often standing in for insight,” and I would agree. “Now Is Not the Time to Panic” could have used more attention to the plot rather than trying to needlessly come to conclusions that could have just flowed naturally if the story itself stood on its own two legs. The explanation of the main quote of the novel at the beginning of the book emphasizes Wilson’s desire to pay homage to his late friend, but basing a book on a single quote might have been a better strategy for a short story. Instead, the novel itself seems full of half-baked ideas with plot points that seem extraneous at best and often very out of place.
As many issues as I had with the novel, I enjoyed the anticipation of what might happen next. I may not have been happy with the ending and wished for more, but Wilson’s portrayal of American teenagehood was nostalgic and kept me interested enough to get to the last page.
Daily Arts Writer Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.