Kevin Wilson’s novel Now Is Not the Time to Panic is built around the relationship between two loner teenagers in the small, drab town of Coalfield. It’s 1996, and 16-year-old Frankie lives with her mother and rowdy, older triplet brothers. Frankie is a loner while her brothers move in a mass of testosterone-driven mayhem. Frankie’s mother works hard to support the family since her husband departed with a much younger woman and established a whole new family. He even had the nerve to call his new daughter Frankie–as if the original just faded away or died. This is a period of great confusion for Frankie. While other girls talk nonstop about boys and sex, Frankie doesn’t relate at all to other girls’ interests, and consequently she becomes even more mentally isolated. Then into her life comes Zeke. He moved to Coalfield after his father took up with a younger woman (women as it turns out), so right away the two teens bond over their fathers’ abandonment. Zeke comes from Memphis and now lives with his depressed mother and grandmother. He doesn’t understand what Coalfield people “do for fun.”
“This town is weird,” he said. “It’s like a bomb was dropped on it, and you guys are just getting back to normal.”
Frankie, our narrator, admits “I lived inside myself way more than I lived inside this town,” while Zeke is emotionally distressed by recent events and goes “into some trance […] and gets destructive.” They realise that they are “both alone in the same way.” They “both had dads who sucked.”
The two teens start hanging out, and out of boredom, they create a poster. Zeke is the artist and Frankie creates the words:
The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.
Using a copier stolen by Frankie’s brothers, the two teens makes 100s of copies of the poster and then begin hanging them all over town. Two local teens use the poster as an excuse for staying out and drinking; they claim they met the devil-worshipping “fugitives” who made the poster. Nothing ever happens in Coalfield so the news that devil worshippers are on the outskirts of town, drives many of the residents into a frenzy. Soon, there’s a “poster posse” a “dad militia” guarding the streets and all hell breaks loose.
The plot follows Zeke and Frankie in 1996, and then some chapters take place twenty years later when Frankie, now a successful author, is contacted by a journalist regarding the “Coalfield Panic of 96.” There’s a sweetness to this novel, and the sweetness dominates any humour. These are two very sad teens, good kids who are struggling to adjust to their new lives, and for a while at least they think they can help each other. The novel also has an amazingly sincere introduction from the author explaining the genesis of the novel. There is something about Wilson’s approach to life: it’s fascinating, fresh quirkiness that appeals to me. I am not a fan of books about teens but I enjoyed this, its exploration of moral responsibility, individuality and friendship. I particularly liked the idea that nonconformity and creativity are right there for these two teens, and the plot shows how these two teens shaped each other for the years ahead.
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.