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Now Is Not the Time to Panic

November 22, 2022

Kevin Wilson’s newest novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, made me shudder with both recognition and repulsion. It’s about art, and being a teenager, and sharing a secret. I don’t know Kevin Wilson, but I’m starting to feel like he was there when I was a teenager in a town north of Memphis and south of St. Louis.

The two teens of the novel, Frankie and Zeke, decide one summer day to write down a phrase and draw images around it, and then they make copies and post them around their town, a little place called Coalfield. I have a question about this for all you readers—is that uncommon? I certainly did it, and more than once, on different themes. I made posters and questionnaires about a fictional “Peacock Farm” and I ran an invisible man I named George for student council president of my high school. I don’t remember what I wrote on any of these posters, but they were all different and the ones for George all had a reference to his invisibility. One of my proudest moments as a 16-year-old was when a friend of mine who was on the student council found out it was me making the signs and confronted me, saying “you’ve made a mockery of the whole election!”

As a teenager, I had a taste for creating what is now called performance art, and it seems like there was always someone willing to go along with whatever wacky idea I came up with. It was fun, and we thought we were making a statement, and I don’t remember that much about the details now, although I remember it was exciting.

Frankie, though—she’s not like that. She takes a photo of her divorced parents and “used scissors to make a jagged separation between them, cutting the photo in half. I pasted them to the edges of a piece of copy paper, and then Zeke drew all these little designs in the gap between them, snakes wrapped around knives, lightning bolts, a fist punching out of a grave.” When they look at the finished product, Frankie says “I think I’d feel awful if my mom ever saw this” and Zeke tells her “I think art is supposed to make your family uncomfortable.” That was certainly part of the point of my teenaged productions, to stir up my family and anyone else I considered too complacent.

What Frankie wants is volume. She puts up her posters on “telephone poles, taped them to the windows of businesses, folded them up and hid them in the aisles of the grocery store…we put a few in some random mailboxes on the way to Zeke’s grandmother’s house.” I did all that, but not her next step, which is to continue making copies and putting them up even after they’ve been discovered and taken down. Frankie says “I wished we had an airplane that we could fly over Coalfield, dumping out copy after copy….it was the high of doing something weird, not knowing the outcome.” The thing is, though, that she starts to find out about the outcome because she just can’t quit putting up her poster until people really start to think it means something.

The people of Coalfield start to believe it means kidnapping and violence, and then of course they make that happen. The sheriff is quoted in the local newspaper saying “Now is not the time to panic, but, also, there seem to be dark forces at play.” The poster and the agitation it stirs up get so famous that it’s called “the Coalfield Panic” and is “featured on Unsolved Mysteries and Hard Copy and 20/20.” And because people died and Zeke moved back to Memphis, Frankie never tells anybody about her involvement.

As an adult, Frankie achieves some measure of fame as a children’s book author, which I think would make most people move on from thinking about one phrase they wrote at sixteen, but Frankie is still completely obsessed with the phrase she put on the poster. Years after that summer, a reporter finds out that Frankie is responsible for the poster because of a letter written by her neighbor at the time, a famous artist. Frankie is married and has a daughter, and yet she still likes to repeat the phrase she made up when she was sixteen. She finds Zeke and asks if she can tell the reporter that he helped with the poster and he tells her no, saying “it was so long ago.” That would be my feeling.

But Frankie says “It doesn’t feel like that long ago to me, honestly….I think about it all the time. I think about that summer. I say the phrase to myself. If I’m just sitting by myself, not really thinking about anything, I see those hands that you drew, just kind of hovering there in my mind.” At the end of the novel she is lying in bed, repeating her phrase to herself over and over.

So after reading this novel I feel recognition of the urge and repulsion at the way it develops into obsession. Tell me, please—did you also make art like this as a teenager and did you drag your friends into it? Or has Kevin Wilson really been spying on my life?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2022 3:38 pm

    Not THAT one particularly, but one or two others… that, even today, would not bear a lot of investigation. No one will ever know – because I had no friends but one, they were not involved, and I’ve told no one. And won’t.

    There’s a reason we believe minors aren’t finished – we remember ourselves.

    • November 27, 2022 1:15 pm

      I finally told my parents an edited version of a few of the things we were up to as teens. Fortunately the cop who pulled us over for flapping tennis rackets out the windows of my friend’s car (to make it fly) didn’t make a big production out of it. As you say, most of this stuff had to be secret or it just wasn’t as funny.

      • November 27, 2022 1:55 pm

        Did you ever wonder how I could write so convincingly (I thought) about obsession?

        Best our parents didn’t know at the time.

        • November 27, 2022 2:11 pm

          I had my suspicions, as I noted the descent into obsession in my review…and that’s one of the reasons I liked reading Pride’s Children: Purgatory so much!
          And yes, best they didn’t know.

          • November 27, 2022 2:55 pm

            Obsession is… interesting. I don’t know what you do with experiences like that if you don’t write. You really nailed it in that review.

  2. November 22, 2022 4:48 pm

    I never made art like that but it sounds like a lot of fun!

    • November 27, 2022 1:18 pm

      Oh it was. I wish I still had a copy of one of the many questionnaires I made up and gave to people who wanted to join the “peacock farm” club. They were sort of Dada-esque playing with reality questions, as I remember them. Probably also influenced by Monty Python and the early seasons of Saturday Night Live.

  3. November 23, 2022 4:24 pm

    How wild that you saw so much of your teenage pursuits in this novel. I didn’t make art like that but then I also didn’t make visual art. I was the girl scribbling poems in notebooks (mostly about boys that didn’t love me.)

    • November 27, 2022 1:24 pm

      Although a lot of my mischief-making was performance art (playing “dead body”) I didn’t make visual art either. When I made posters, they were all words, words, words.
      It actually wasn’t until 2012 that I started making an effort to include visual elements in the posters I made, like a poster of the Quaker Oats guy with the face of Veronica Mars and the caption “A long time ago we used to be Friends” or a fake ad for “Strident” toothpaste “with real Kingsfoil flavor” (“cures the black breath!”).

  4. December 3, 2022 2:47 pm

    Not quite the same but I would write my best friend pages and pages of rhyming nonsense and she would laugh and laugh. I sometimes wish I had made copies (and I also hope she got rid of them!)
    I am looking forward to reading this.

    • December 3, 2022 2:58 pm

      Similar, though, very similar…the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t have thought to copy or keep!

  5. December 4, 2022 5:14 pm

    My friend Alice posts a list of funny gifts you probably wouldn’t want to give or receive, and today she posted a photo of a musical toilet paper roll. It made me think of my friend who, when we lived in the suburbs of Washington DC, would walk with me from the Metro to Georgetown and on the way we would often stop to use the restroom at a fancy hotel. We’d go in and start singing. “Oh that’s a lovely singing toilet seat!” one of us would exclaim to the other and then “listen to the tune this one plays!” When we came out of the stalls, if there was anyone in the restroom we’d ask “what tune did your toilet seat play?” We never did this anywhere else, and we always did it when we used the restroom at this hotel. You can guess what she’s getting for Christmas!

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