It’s summer in Coalfield, Tennessee, and art is seizing the city with an ironclad grip. Mysterious posters have surfaced across town, emblazoned with a haunting illustration and mystifying script: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers,” it reads. “We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” The residents marvel and the paranoiacs speculate, but no one knows that the posters’ origin is just a pair of teenagers with a Xerox machine and a dream.
So it goes in Kevin Wilson’s fourth novel “Now is Not the Time to Panic,” published Nov. 8. Told in alternating timelines, the book tells the story of how teenage outcast and aspiring novelist Frankie Budge meets budding artist Zeke Brown one fateful summer in 1996. When the two create the cryptic poster that sends Coalfield spiraling, it snowballs into a flurry of whispers and whiplash that alters their lives forever. Twenty years later, a reporter searches for the truth about the Coalfield Panic of 1996 in an investigation that threatens to overturn Frankie’s life once more.
Though Wilson’s prose is emphatic and resonant with narrative voice, Frankie’s ceaseless inner monologue demonstrates why the age-old writing maxim of “show, don’t tell” continues to persist as craft advice. While her pedantic explanations can be partially justified by the novel’s split temporality and retrospective reflections, they rapidly grow monotonous in places where more dynamic plot points might flourish. Wilson’s candid writing style is keen, but it isn’t enough to outstrip its unnecessarily explicative tendencies.
The novel’s dialogue attempts to display a veracious representation of teenage speech — peppered with “like,” ellipses, and overly juvenile uncertainties. While it demonstrates an admirable attempt at realism, Wilson is unable to decide between the stilted oral verisimilitudes of a transcript and traditional fictitious stylization. Instead, he settles for a murky in-between that more often distracts than rings true. Wilson, at times, writes in ways that portray Frankie and Zeke as younger than they actually are.
Wilson’s combination of precarious dialogue and static prose only serves to further flatten the novel’s one-dimensional characters. In theory, Frankie and Zeke have enough distinctiveness to be compelling: flush with unique interests, wrought family dynamics and ambition, the two teenagers have all the quirks of a John Green protagonist. Yet, their trajectories through the book’s plot render them as flimsy caricatures, more half-finished concept sketches than flesh and bone. Youthful self-importance and artistic exigence might be plausible motivations to fuel a narrative the length of a short story, but the book can’t seem to muster enough steam to cover the bases of a novel that encompasses decades.
The phrase that adorns their poster, too, feels washed-out by the time its closing chapter reams past. Too flowery to be catchphrased and too contextually weightless to be grounded by the novel’s specificity, it capitalizes on ornamentation in the vein of a viral Tumblr quote. Though Frankie mumbles it in her sleep even decades after its initial conception, there’s little to support its sense of primacy; in fact, its blissful ambivalence is perhaps the book’s most disillusioning component.
Despite its inspired premise, “Now is Not the Time to Panic” is unable to convince its audience of the magnetism it so fervently strives to evince, leaving the reader at somewhat of a loss as to why the bygone summer of 1996 lingers so heavily in Frankie’s consciousness. However, the novel’s attempt to broach themes of art’s power and once-in-a-lifetime human connection is commendably audacious, even if its most engaging elements — family, growing pains and adulthood — are relegated to the back burner.
Charmingly ambitious yet prosaically pedestrian, “Now is Not the Time to Panic” carries just enough poignance to casually rivet, but falls short of the charisma, depth and execution necessary to be truly incandescent. Though rife with the bursting imagination of a seasoned writer, the novel’s pitfalls dangle dangerously close to the edge of panic, grasping for a foothold above a precipice of disenchantment.