Gold Seekers and Fugitives: A Review of Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

Cover art for novel Now is Not the Time to Panic

Set in the summer of 1996, Kevin Wilson’s fourth novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, follows outcast teenagers Frankie and Zeke who have just four things on their minds: a cryptic phrase, a hand-drawn poster, a stolen Xerox machine, and a plan. Their goal to fill their long summer days in the small town of Coalfield, Tennessee with art, writing, and creativity quickly spirals out of their control and ignites mass hysteria, reminiscent of the Satanic panic of the 1980s. Frankie and Zeke’s art project goes viral—before “going viral” was even a concept, let alone a commonplace occurrence. There is intrigue in the enigmatic nature of their creation as the townspeople try to make sense of the nonsensical. At the same time, an adult Frankie looks back on that summer of her past and tries to reconcile with the ways in which its events radiated throughout the world and her life since. 

Wilson’s writing has the ability to embody fully-realized child and adult characters alike. In the fall of 2022, I had the opportunity to interview Wilson about his work, and I asked him about his strategy for writing adolescent characters. He explained that younger characters are often encountering challenging situations for the first time, and he spoke about trying to write from the perspective of characters who lack the experience of age to know how to navigate new challenges with ease. In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, he certainly succeeds. As much as Frankie and Zeke are experiencing the unusual circumstances of the novel’s plot, they are also experiencing that more universal feeling of being fully seen and understood by another person for the first time in their young lives. The novel is as much about the utter strangeness of mass hysteria as it is about the loneliness of being an individual on “the edge” of social circles, witnessing the world but unable to truly take part in it. The exhilaration that the two feel upon finding a friend in one another is palpable throughout the novel—and it is nothing short of a miracle.

The novel does not shy away from the codependence that can infiltrate adolescent friendships—the way that one’s feelings about something can be so entirely contingent upon another’s approval. Frankie is at times desperate for Zeke to love all the same things that she does, and, if he doesn’t, she questions whether that diminishes her love for that thing or her love for Zeke. Wilson perfectly portrays the ways in which young people make sense of the world around them and learn to define and demarcate their own identities. Wilson also captures the heightened imagination, ambition, and possibility of childhood—the hold that even an illogical idea can have over a young person, the allure of something as seemingly mundane as a photocopier or a half-written mystery novel. To ignore the experience and knowledge of adulthood and to see the world through the eyes of the young is a difficult task for a writer. And yet, in Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Wilson triumphs.

Wilson not only fills his novel with all the awkwardness and contradiction of childhood, but he also imbues the narrative with a sense of small-town angst. “I’d never felt particularly connected to Coalfield,” thinks Wilson’s Frankie of her hometown. “I mean, I felt anchored to it, like the years I’d spent here would make it harder for me to live anywhere else, but I never felt shaped by it.” The setting is crucial to the plot and the motivations of its characters; the town is a character in and of itself, at times playing the role of the antagonist, at times being a beacon of comfort and retreat. 

Having grown up in a small town myself, I was able to see many aspects of my own childhood reflected back at me from the pages of Wilson’s novel: the aimless driving, the interconnected lives of neighbors and classmates, the conflicting desires to be noticed and to be anonymous. And yet, the novel is speaking to both child and adult audiences simultaneously. Whether the reader is reflecting upon the buried past or living in the wide-open present, they will find a part of themselves in Wilson’s world.

Kevin Wilson is also the author of the novels Nothing to See Here, Perfect Little World, and The Family Fang, as well as the short story collections Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is available now from Ecco Books.

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