Quirky American author, Kevin Wilson‘s latest fictional offering was released in late 2022 to much anticipation. Called Now is Not the Time to Panic, the novel once again explores the line between art and chaos as it follows sixteen-year-old Frances ‘Frankie’ Budge through the summer of 1996.
A loner and an aspiring writer, Frankie is a disenfranchised teen whose father has remarried and had another daughter, whom he has also named Frankie. Isolated even among her own family (she is the younger sister of three rambunctious and alphabetically named triplet brothers) Frankie latches on to fellow loner and new boy in town Zeke after a bizarre meet-cute involving chasing a greased up watermelon around a pool. Yes, you read that correctly.
Discovering that Zeke is an illustrator, Zeke and Frankie decide to make art together. Armed with a pilfered photocopier machine, they begin distributing a flyer bearing a cryptic slogan Frankie has dreamed up. The act of secretly postering the town with their art is thrilling at first. But soon the other people in the town of Coalfield begin to interpret Frankie’s words in their own way, and as panic sets in, Frankie begins to grasp the magnitude of what they have created.
The book opens some years later, when Frankie receives a phone call from a journalist who has somehow worked out that Frankie was involved with the now infamous ‘Coalfield Panic.’ At first, Frankie is hesitant to rehash the past, but the more she thinks about it, the more she realises that she must. The novel is told mostly through Frankie’s remembrances of the past, interspersed with her conversations with journalist Mazzy in the present day.
While Wilson is known for being funny and clever, I couldn’t help but feel like this latest novel was a little light on the content side. The book paled in comparison to his recently re-released short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, which showcased the breadth of his imagination. In Now is Not the Time to Panic, absurdity was sometimes swapped for mere randomness, leaving this reader scratching her head and thinking, ‘But why?’ A real stand-out is Frankie’s constant description of Zeke’s breath as tasting pleasantly of celery…
The voice of Frankie as the lead character and narrator sometimes felt a little off-target and overly juvenile. When Frankie first jumps in a car to drive herself and Zeke around, I had to backtrack and remind myself that she was sixteen. But she also has moments of deep clarity that contextualise the whole book and it is her journey of coming to terms with what happened that summer which really matters.
While this isn’t my favourite Wilson, it is not a terrible book by any means. It is a supremely interesting experiment into the life art can have all on its own once it is released into the world by its creators. In many ways, it is a kind of thematic sequel to Wilson’s debut The Family Fang.
Now is Not the Time to Panic asks big questions like, what is art anyway, and what responsibility does the artist have for what the audience does with their art? He offers no definitive answers, but the sense of panic created – at odds with the book’s title- is palpable.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Kevin Wilson’s Now is Not the Time to Panic is available now through Text Publishing. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.