Kevin Wilson came to prominence with his 2011 novel The Family Fang, the celebrated story of a family of performance artists—their early comic misadventures contrasted with their emotional struggles later in life. The book was adapted to film in 2015, starring Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Kathryn Hahn, and Christopher Walken, thereby catapulting Wilson to national attention and shining a brighter light on all his work. That work includes two excellent collections of stories (2009’s Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and 2018’s Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two later novels (2017’s Perfect Little World and 2019’s Nothing to See Here). I was personally bowled over by Nothing to See Here, a gloriously odd tale about a young woman who takes on the job of caretaking two kids who have the disturbing ability to self-immolate. It’s to Wilson’s credit that in a story about spontaneously combusting children, the most fascinating character in the book is the caretaker!
“Gloriously odd” is an adjective phrase you might apply to all of Wilson’s work. He excels at portraying the interaction between very real, relatable people who are touched by the bizarre or even the supernatural. I read his books for his uncanny ability to portray oddballs—people who are just left of center, notable if only for finding unique ways to deal with the weightier aspects of everyday life. In dialog, in heartfelt soliloquys, in scenes that feel like life tinged with a kind of vivid melancholy, Wilson brings these often troubled, typically wounded characters to potent life.
The narrative of Now Is Not the Time to Panic is laser-focused on a very particular nonsense phrase, and it turns out that this nonsense phrase comes directly from Wilson’s life. In a 4-page preface to the book, Wilson recounts a friendship from 1997 that shaped his college-era life, and one key aspect of that friendship was an enduring phrase that this friend (now passed) came up with in a moment of frivolity:
The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.
I’ve set the phrase apart as its own paragraph because it’s absolutely essential to the fictional story herein.
The novel is told from the perspective of an awkward, shy loner—a gangly young woman by the name of Frankie. At a public pool in small-town Tennessee in 1996, she encounters a kindred spirit in the form of Zeke, a budding artist from a rich family who has moved in with his grandmother as his parents’ marriage crumbles. The tentative friendship that develops is one part crush and several parts awkward, characterized by uncertain fumblings that become more oddball friendship than anything else. The two outsiders while away a boring summer together, hanging out in her room (much to her mother’s chagrin) and finding weird stuff to do. One of those weird things involves a large photocopier stolen long ago by Frankie’s ne’er-do-well brothers. That copier is going to provide the foundation for what becomes a shared obsession: Frankie’ll dash off a bit of nonsense poetry, Zeke’ll provide some provocative art, and they’ll make a thousand photocopies of it to secretly tack up on walls and telephone poles throughout town. C’mon, it’ll be great, Frankie implores, not anticipating the paranoid and deadly horrors that will overtake her small town as a result of their shared silly act—not to mention the wedge that it will ultimately drive between the two teens.
Add to all this a framing structure set in present day, in which adult Frankie is approached by a New Yorker journalist named Mazzy Brower to set the record straight about Frankie’s involvement in what becomes known as the Coalfield Panic. This device layers a mystery over the bulk of the novel that also provides the foundation for a redemptive but bittersweet final act. I’m not sure it all works in the end—for one overriding reason I’ll get to—but there’s no denying that these characters are oddly endearing and affecting.
The strongest aspect of Now Is Not the Time to Panic is the offbeat relationship between its young protagonists. The novel essentially amounts to a YA coming-of-age book that really nails the teen angst and yearning of two kids enduring a boring summer east of Nashville. I myself was transported back to those lazy summers of my own youth, listening to music, doodling, writing, finding amusement in whatever I could reach in my immediate vicinity. In that respect, the book feels true and tangible. On top of that, the nonsense phrase that’s central to these proceedings did come from real life—Kevin Wilson’s life! I can picture Frankie and Zeke so vividly that their awkward interactions pop off the page. Wilson’s breezy prose and his eccentric wit convey the tale with a trademark approachability that I actually envy as an author myself. You might call his style a fun mix of suburban-intrigue master Tom Perrotta and southern comic-fabulist John Kennedy Toole—just a pleasure to read each page.
Which is why I’m frustrated that the nonsense phrase which is so vital to this book—The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us—left me pretty cold. In the end, a quirky turn of phrase that imprinted on Wilson as a young man really has to do some heavy lifting to work as the key lynchpin of the book’s plot. And the phrase is pervasive. You’ll come away from Now Is Not the Time to Panic with that oft-repeated string of words imprinted on your eyelids. That’s a lot of narrative weight for a thirty-year-old tossed-off phrase, no matter how much it meant to Wilson at the time.
But somehow, thanks to his authorial gifts, Wilson mostly makes it work. The book is both lightweight and powerful, concerning itself with young tentative love and the complications we bring to it, the power of art in teen lives (in particular, how it can influence personality and outlook), and perhaps most importantly the way our decisions can impact our community, no matter our stature or standing. For Frankie, the decisions she made as a very young woman—kept secret for decades—made an inexplicably obsessive turmoil of her life, compelling her to keep going and going and going, and as a reader you’re left wondering what on earth motivated her. And fearful of the answer.