Book of The Month: Now Is not the Time to Panic (2022)
by Kevin Wilson
“This story is much more likely to break your heart than your funny bone. Wilson is witty, to be sure, and he has a firm grip on the absurdity of domestic life, particularly families and their strange, terrarium-like realms. But if there’s comedy here, it’s steeped in melancholy.
Crucially, this strange summer of 1996 is framed in the novel as a set of wonderful and horrible events that took place 20 years ago during a worldwide spasm of anxiety about “the shantytown filled with gold seekers.” Frankie recalls it all reluctantly at first and then with alarm. Having built her adult life as a respected author, a good mother, a devoted wife, she’s terrified that her role in the Coalfield Panic of 1996 might be exposed.
As the story develops along these two tracks — past and present — “Now Is Not the Time to Panic” plumbs both the intensity of an early creative experience and the strange way such experiences get preserved in the amber of our minds. The result is another tender, moving novel by an author who understands how truly bizarre ordinary life is.”
Charles, Ron. “In Kevin Wilson’s ‘Now Is Not the Time to Panic,’ two kids cause panic.“ The Washington Post. November 15, 2022
“I ANSWERED THE PHONE, AND THERE WAS A WOMAN’S VOICE on the other end, a voice that I didn’t recognize. “Is this Frances Budge?” she asked, and I was certain it was a telemarketer, because nobody called me Frances. In the living room, my seven-year-old daughter had made her own set of drums, including a tin plate for a cymbal, so it was loud as hell in the house, with this ting-bang-ting-ting-bang rhythm she had going on. I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested,” and started to hang up, but the woman, understanding that I was done with her, tried her best to pull me in.
“The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers,” she said, her voice rising in pitch, and I froze. I nearly dropped the phone. And together, in harmony, we both completed the phrase, “We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”
“So you know it,” the woman said.
“I’ve heard it before, yeah, of course,” I said, already trying to run away. I could feel the world spinning around me. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, fuck, no in my head, a kind of spiraling madness, because, you know, it had been so long ago. Because, I guess, I’d let myself think that no one would ever find out. But she’d found me. And I was already trying to figure out how to get lost again, to stay lost.
“I’m writing an article for the New Yorker,” she told me. “My name is Mazzy Brower, and I’m an art critic. I’m writing about the Coalfield Panic of 1996.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Mom!” my daughter Junie was shouting. “Listen! Listen to me! Listen! It’s ‘Wipe Out,’ right? Doesn’t this sound just like ‘Wipe Out’? Mom? Listen!”
“And I think you made it happen,” the woman said, treading carefully. Her voice sounded nice, honest.
“You think I made it?” I said, almost laughing, but it was true. I had made it. Not just me, but I was part of it. Me and one other person.
“I’m almost one hundred percent certain that it was you,” Mazzy Brower said.
“Oh god,” I said, and I realized I was saying it out loud. My daughter was banging away. I felt dizzy. There was a pizza in the oven. My husband was finally fixing the latch on a window in our bedroom, which we’d been meaning to fix for four solid months. Our life, which was so boring and normal, was still happening. Right at this moment, as everything was changing, it was like my life didn’t know it yet. It didn’t know to just stop, to freeze, because nothing was going to be the same. Let the pizza burn. Forget about that stupid, shitty latch on the window. Pack up your stuff. Let’s get the hell out of here. Let’s burn down the house and start over. For a split second, I thought maybe just I could get out of here and start over.”
” IT WAS SUMMER, WHICH MEANT THAT NOTHING WAS HAPPENING. It was insanely hot, making it hard to care about anything other than eating Popsicles. My house was empty; my mom was working, my dad was in Milwaukee with his new family, and the triplets were all flipping burgers at different fast-food restaurants. I’d wander the house, listening to music on my headphones, never changing out of my pajamas. I was supposed to get a job, but I hadn’t filled out any of the applications. I was fine with just keeping up my babysitting gigs. My mom, who loved me so much and was so tired, gave up, let me have the house to myself, and at first I was happy for the silence, but soon it began to feel oppressive, like the walls knew I was the only person there and could shrink down to hold me in place.
I wasn’t looking for a friend or anything like that. I was bored. And Zeke, this new boy who seemed stunned to find himself in this dinky little town, was something that could occupy my time.
Two days after we’d first met at the public pool, after I gave him a little piece of paper with my address on it, Zeke rode his bike over to my house. He had on an oversize black Road Warriors T-shirt, two angry wrestlers, their faces painted, weird shoulder pads. My brothers loved these dudes, too. I couldn’t imagine people who seemed more different than Zeke and my brothers, but if you were a boy, there were just things you loved, I guess.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “I live, like, four blocks away.”
I just shrugged, unsure of what to do now that he was here.
“Thanks for inviting me,” he said. I shrugged again. What was wrong with my tongue? Why did it feel so fuzzy?
“This town is weird,” he said. “It’s like a bomb was dropped on it, and you guys are just getting back to normal.”
“It’s pretty boring,” I finally said, and my jaws ached with the effort.
“It’s always better to be bored with someone else,” he offered. I gestured for him to follow me inside, into the air-conditioning.
I didn’t know exactly what to do with him, but I wanted it to be clear that we weren’t going to have sex in my empty house. I had been nervous over the past two days, worrying what I was or was not getting myself into, all the things that I did not yet want to do. I needed Zeke to know that it wasn’t that kind of thing, so we just sat on the sofa and watched horror movies on VHS, eating Pop-Tarts, which felt so far away from what I thought sex might be that it seemed safe. I was trying to put off talking for as long as possible, until it became inevitable. By then, I thought, I’d have something interesting to tell him.
“Do you like it here?” Zeke asked me while I was taking out one tape and trying to put in another. And now we had to talk. I guessed I was okay with this.”