STARRED REVIEW
November 2022

Now Is Not the Time to Panic

By Kevin Wilson
Review by
Kevin Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.
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In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson once again deploys his customary humorous, off-center storytelling to artfully delve into deeper matters. Where his previous bestsellers The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here focused directly on weird family dynamics, his latest novel explores issues of adolescent angst, art and even societal madness.

The story is set in the out-of-the-way town of Coalfield, Tennessee, in the blazing hot summer of 1996. Frances Eleanor Budge, “Frankie” as her single mother and triplet older brothers call her, is the teller of this tale. At the beginning of the novel, she is an alienated 16-year-old and aspiring writer. She avidly reads “badass women southern writers” like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, but in the summer of ’96, Frankie aspires to write a darker version of a Nancy Drew mystery novel—emblematic of the childhood-adult divide she is about to cross.

During a hot day at the town pool, Frankie meets Zeke, another teenage outsider and a talented graphic artist. Zeke’s wealthy parents have sent him to live with his grandmother while they work out their divorce back in Memphis. Frankie and Zeke become inseparable, tentatively exploring a relationship and more assertively collaborating on nerdy artistic projects. 

One project involves a starkly illustrated poster that contains the mysteriously evocative message “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Swearing eternal secrecy about their prank, Frankie and Zeke staple copies of the poster everywhere. The impact is explosive. Fanned by rumors and paranoia, it creates a national stir, resulting in what will later be called the Coalfield Panic of 1996.

For Frankie, the experience is both scary and liberating. She is proud of her work and upset when outsiders claim authorship of her words. Zeke, however, is troubled by the unexpected community response, and he is relieved when others claim the poster as their own. Alarmed by events, Zeke’s parents whisk him away, and for more than two decades, Zeke and Frankie have no contact. Their eventual reunion speaks forcefully about the qualities of loyalty and friendship.

In the end, Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.

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