Now Is Not the Time to Panic

  • By Kevin Wilson
  • Ecco
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ashlee Green
  • December 9, 2023

Teens’ shake-up of their small town has lifelong repercussions.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic

Are you in or out? It’s a leading question, and it guides the course of Kevin Wilson’s fever dream of a new novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic.

When two teenagers — awkward, repressed wannabe writer Frankie and jittery, hermit-like aspiring illustrator Zeke — meet at a greased-watermelon competition at the Coalfield, Tennessee, public pool in the summer of 1996, they set in motion a kinship that informs the rest of their lives. Inseparable for the season, Frankie and Zeke bond over their daddy issues and creative drive, then hatch a Banksy-like plan to cover their town in eerie guerrilla art that features one baffling phrase:

“The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers, we are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”

The main questions they’re poking at: “How did you prevent your life from turning into something so boring that no one wanted to know about it? How did you make yourself special?” They eff around and find out (when their art takes on a menacing life of its own) that boring isn’t always bad, special isn’t always good, and secrets — like God — work in mysterious ways.

Many readers have their own Coalfield, a real-life town that’s also a stand-in for Small Town, U.S.A. This makes Frankie and Zeke you and me: outcasts whose only real goal in their young lives is to GTFO of the place.

“I can’t quite articulate how, in so many ways, Coalfield controlled how the outside world came to you,” Frankie explains. “Like, you never really knew about punk until you heard Green Day on the radio, long after they were popular, and if you loved that, maybe you started doing a little work…And you were always kind of embarrassed because you knew other people, people in Nashville or Atlanta (who could even conceive of New York City) knew all of this…Every single thing that you loved became a source of both intense obsession and possible shame. Everything was a secret.”

Until Frankie and Zeke turn 18 and acquire any real agency to leave home, they have each other and their art. In the words of Zeke, they’re both “kind of alone in the same way,” and “it’s always better to be bored with someone else.” Is it, though?

Where’s the line between loyalty and zealotry, passion and compulsion? Separating yourself from the masses — standing out — can be a life raft. Single yourself out too much, however, and it can backfire, leading to obsessive overthinking and self-aggrandizing. Frankie is impressionable; her inner “weirdness and sadness vibrated all the time.” Soon, one subversive poster becomes two, two become 10, and 10 become 120. The reproduction feels, to her, like “alchemy,” and right away, she wants “a million of them.” While in this headspace, she’s pressured into a blood oath with Zeke:

“I knew that I would trace my whole life back to this moment, my finger bleeding…I knew it would probably fuck me up. I wondered if this was a sign that whatever happened this summer, I’d be the one with a scar.”

This is a quick read but hardly a simple one. It presents big ideas and asks readers to do the heavy introspective work of mulling them over. While detailing the domino effect of Frankie and Zeke’s teenage art experiment, deemed the “Coalfield Panic” by the media, the novel also interweaves the story of the now-grown Frankie (Frances) being confronted by a New Yorker reporter about this secret from her youth. Frances seems an enigma — to the reader and herself. Even adult Frankie doesn’t know who adult Frankie is. PTSD can keep you locked in the past.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic has some compelling themes: creativity, devotion, family dysfunction, adolescent life and love, and mental illness. Nostalgia’s in there too, complete with references fellow ’90s kids will appreciate: Cabbage Patch Kids, Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” Pop-Tarts, Cheetos Puffs, “Fantasia,” Hamburger Helper, Three 6 Mafia, Dippin’ Dots, Magic Eye posters, and Air Jordans.

The “fugitives” phrase Frankie adds to the poster comes from Wilson’s own life as a college student in the 1990s; it was fed to him by a friend, as he explains in an author’s note. We hear it a lot in the book — like, a lot a lot. Eventually — too late, I’d argue — it’s referred to simply as “the phrase.” While it’s used to build tension (which it does, up to a point), we’re not given much of a payoff. Instead, we’re left with more questions: What makes someone a bad person? Can we control how others construe our work? Where does collaboration end and coercion begin? If you’re free, can anything truly hurt you?

If these are the sort of matters that plague you, too, then read this novel. But do it with a friend or in a book club. Believe me, in our “post-pandemic” world, you won’t want to endure it alone.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2022.]

Ashlee Green (she/they) is a writer, editor, and zinester living in Washington, DC, and pursuing her MFA in creative writing at George Mason University. The former managing editor of the Northside Chronicle, their work explores gender and sexuality, power structures, personal freedom, and mental health. She has been published in HuffPost and the Rumpus. Find them on Twitter at @ashleegreenbean.

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