With Twitter teetering, it can be useful to remember that before we had the Internet we had art. For young people in particular, the arts have long served to connect, creating a cocooning tribalism that eases the passage to individualism and adulthood. And back in the day, for two adolescents in a town so small “you never really knew about punk until you heard Green Day on the radio, long after they were popular,” that art had to be self-created, with repercussions that drive Kevin Wilson’s “Now Is Not the Time to Panic.”
Largely set during the summer of 1996, Wilson’s fourth novel centers on Frankie, a virginal loner who, at 16, feels left behind by the friends who have moved on sexually and socially. More interested in her Nancy Drew mysteries than dating, Frankie lives with her “nearly feral” brothers and beleaguered mother, their unfaithful father having absconded with his secretary. When she meets Zeke, a newcomer whose mother has fled nearby Memphis and a similar betrayal, she recognizes a kindred spirit, and a friendship is born.
What the two “well-behaved dorks” share is a desire to create. While Frankie is laboring at her own bad-girl version of a Nancy Drew, Zeke is already a talented draftsman, and Wilson perfectly captures the potency of this connection, set against adolescent mundanities. “‘I want to be an artist,’ he told me, like we were both admitting that we weren’t human. We didn’t understand how normal this was, to be young, to believe you were destined to make beautiful things.”
The two decide that making art should be their summer project, “like art was cookies or microwave popcorn.” After some experimentation with collage — and with kissing — Zeke tells Frankie to “write something really strange,” which he will then illustrate. What she comes up with is poetry of a sort, suggestive of the conceptual art of Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger and steeped in the teens’ shared familial trauma: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Using a Xerox machine that Frankie’s brothers have stolen, they make copies of the resulting poster and begin a guerilla distribution effort, plastering walls and poking copies into mailboxes. The line, which goes viral, is open to interpretation, and in small, conservative Coalfield it comes to be seen — perhaps like all good art — as a threat.
Predictably, their creation is coopted. At first, it is used as an excuse by two stoner teens, who blame “the fugitives” for kidnapping them and taking them “to the edge,” after they pass out one night and don’t make it home till morning. Other alienated youth pick up on the slogan’s outlaw expressiveness as well, and when one dies while trying to hang a poster on a water tower and a vigilante group starts shooting people, the outrage peaks. In one of the book’s less plausible plot developments, a local newspaper reporter — coincidentally, Frankie’s mother’s boyfriend — jumps on the story, inflaming the panic to national proportions.
This summer is being recalled by the adult Frankie. A mother (and a successful author), she finds herself thrown back into the past when a journalist calls. The journalist has uncovered that Frankie was the source of the so-called “Coalfield Panic” and is writing about the mystery. Because Frankie has never told her family about her role, the upcoming revelation creates a crisis that serves as a framing device for the earlier story.
The adult Frankie does provide welcome context: “I was sixteen. I lived inside myself way more than I lived inside of this town.” Unfortunately, this narrator’s dilemma is not only less dramatic than her teen self’s story, it is also less believable. Would a reporter’s call really have evoked such panic in a grown woman? The voice also distances the reader and deprives the book of the immediacy of, say, Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here.”
Luckily the bulk of this book is the younger Frankie’s tale, in which Wilson so beautifully depicts the joy of self-discovery. “There was this little voice in my head, and it was telling me what to write down,” Frankie says. “And I knew that this little voice, this tiny, insistent voice … was my voice.”
The ability to express that voice, he knows, is integral to one’s existence. While Zeke feels culpable, Frankie’s life is saved by art — almost literally, in that Randolph Avery, an ailing, “hugely influential” performance artist who has come to live with his sister in Coalfield, will call an ambulance at an opportune moment and then, years later, posthumously provide the link that alerts the journalist, validates young Frankie’s creation, and, ultimately, frees the adult Frankie.
If, inevitably, this denouement feels like a bit of a letdown, lacking the intensity of the adolescent drama, it doesn’t detract from the real delight to be found in “Now Is Not the Time to Panic.” While this fourth outing is flawed, it still rings with much of the visceral freshness of his earlier books and says something about art as well. To steal from Holzer, “In a dream I read a Kevin Wilson novel, and I was filled with joy.”
NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO PANIC
By Kevin Wilson
Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.