Arts and Entertainment Editor
Artsy existentialism, accidental death, satanic cults, and a girl just trying to find her way through the world- Now Is Not the Time to Panic has got it all. Sewanee professor of English and writing, Kevin Wilson’s latest novel is a massive hit. Going home all the way to Texas, walking through your local Barnes and Noble and finding your professor’s latest book on the “Best Fiction of 2022” table is a strange and exciting feeling, just like the feeling Now Is Not the Time to Panic evokes from its readers.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic follows Frances “Frankie” Budge and how one fateful summer when she was 16 changed her life. After a random encounter with Zeke, a strange boy from out of town, at the community pool, Frankie’s world gets a little bigger. She realizes that she’s not the only person who’s a little weird and who wants to do something different with her life. Frankie has grown up in the small town Coalfield, TN, her whole life and Zeke is here just for the summer, escaping his life (and his father’s infidelity) in Memphis. Two kids meet and begin to change the world.
They decide to make art together. Frankie writes, “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Zeke draws the picture, two hands dangling in space, surrounded by power lines and buildings. They sprinkle the art with specks of their blood that look like stars. Together, using an old photocopier in Frankie’s garage, they make copies of this poster and begin hanging it up all over town. Thus begins the later dubbed, “Coalfield Panic” as people take the poster seriously. They begin to think it’s part of a satanic cult, and the phrase pops up everywhere. At first, Frankie and Zeke don’t mind and continue putting up more posters, but soon the panic starts spreading and spiraling out of control.
Several years later, a married Frankie, now a mother, gets a phone call from a woman named Mazzy Brower who knows that she’s responsible for the poster. And in a single moment, surrounded by her busy life, the past and present collide and the world opens up right in front of her. As Frankie says, “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.”
The novel emphasizes the uncontrollable power of words, art, friendship, and memory. Frankie oftens repeats the phrase to herself throughout the novel, allowing the words to wash over her and calm her. Frankie and Zeke keep making posters because the art matters to them. It gives them control, power, something teenagers rarely get. Even as an adult, the panic long over, whenever Frankie feels lost, she makes a copy of the poster (still having the original in her possession) and puts it up somewhere. Frankie and Zeke’s relationship is short and chaotic. They fall fast and hard, this poster bringing them together and connecting them in a world where they feel alone. It may only last for the summer, but it’s important and teaches both of them something about themselves, and the world around them. Frankie’s memories, long pushed aside, rush back to her in a single moment as the carefully curated world she created for herself begins to crash around her.
There is something endlessly magical about this novel, how it pulls you in with each word, and brings you into another world. The artistic desire of Frankie spoke to me each time I picked up the book, how she couldn’t let go of the phrase she created, and how much she wanted to escape Coalfield and begin a new existence. It gave me so much hope as an aspiring author. Just like Frankie, the phrase in the novel wouldn’t escape my mind. I repeated it as I was going to sleep, as I was walking the aisles of Target, as I was strolling through my neighborhood with my dog. Even now, a full month after I’ve finished the novel, I still have the phrase memorized. I think I always will. The power of words grabs you, consumes you, and makes you a different person.
I spent winter break curled in my mother’s bed, reading the book aloud to her. The words seemed to float off the page as I read them and swirl around the room. I simultaneously read it quickly and slowly, reading each sentence with intention and care, but also reading four chapters a night because I couldn’t get enough of Frankie’s story.
The novel has so many lessons and things to take away, and leaves each reader thinking. I left the book thinking about the importance of each part of your story. Even a seemingly boring summer may change your life forever. Even a single phrase can wash over you for the rest of your life. Each part of the paths you take have meaning and value. You have the power to make your story whatever you want it to be. Value each moment and let it change your life. Run to the edge. Be a fugitive.