Now is Not the Time to Panic: What Sticks from Adolescence



By Kevin Wilson

Ecco/HarperCollins, 248 pages.





Sociologists tell us that most fads and crazes are short-lived and harmless. Not all though; some degenerate into rumors and mass hysteria. Now is Not the Time to Panic, the newest novel from Kevin Wilson, explores the dark side of fads, albiet in an often humorous way.


Precocious sixteen-year-old Frances “Frankie” Budge lives in Coalfield, Tennessee, a dishwater-dull generic town. She comes from a home broken when her father was discovered having a second family on the side, including another daughter who is also named Frances. Frankie’s mom is a free spirit, which probably serves her well given that Frankie is working through her adolescent blues and she also needs to rein in her ABC triplet sons (Andrew, Brian, Charlie). They’re more rambunctious than criminal, but they don’t hesitate to walk off with things that aren’t nailed down. That includes a copy machine that sits under a tarp in the garage, because they think they broke it by, of all things, making copies of their butts!


Frankie is so bored that she’s writing a novel about a bad Nancy Drew knockoff and worrying that she’ll be rutted in Coalfield forever. Did any of you ever have an unexpected summertime experience that changed your life? Frankie is about to. A kid “trying out” the name Zeke is in town. He, Benjamin Ezekiel Brown, is staying with his grandmother in Coalfield, because his parents in Memphis are also having marital problems. Neither Frankie nor Zeke have friends and are in that physical stage of adolescence best described as plain-looking.


The two hang out, engage in some awkward kissing, and listen to 1990s grunge, but their big adventure begins when Frankie’s wordcraft and Zeke’s drawing ability collide. Out of the blue Frankie comes up with a phrase you’ll see over and over in Wilson’s novel: The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us. Zeke illustrates the slogan with a comic book-like drawing featuring a pair of hands. It is also adorned with dots resulting from pricking their fingers to splash blood on the poster. Much to their surprise, the printer is easily fixed and they begin to reproduce the poster and secretly hang it all over Coalfield. At first residents ignore it, then they grow curious, then rumors begin. An unexpected event/lie thrusts the poster into the public consciousness and pushes the panic button. Most of the rumors are patently ridiculous–until they become serious.


As such things go, the poster cycle evolves from copies to copycats. Zeke and Frankie are scared to reveal their authorship, as some things have gone down that could get them into trouble. Plus, Frankie is obsessed with their creation and doesn’t want to stop plastering the town with posters. Crazes tend to burn out via circumstances and time. Such is also the case for the partnership between Zeke and Frankie, but obsession is harder to shake.


Wilson moves the clock forward 21 years, by which time Frankie has been to college, has published books, has moved away, has a marriage and family of her own, and has lost touch with Zeke. What would you do, though, if a New Yorker writer contacted you as she (Mazzy Brower) is positive that Frankie made the poster that once dominated the news? Do you fess up? If so, do you give Zeke credit? Do you even know if he’d want it? For that matter, is he even still alive? There’s also the fact that Frankie still tacks up posters. All of these are interesting dilemmas and I invite you to imagine what path you’d choose.   


Now is Not the Time to Panic is a short novel that stays that way by not straying far from its original premise. Some readers questioned the believability of Frankie’s two-decades’ obsession. I can’t resolve its veracity and Wilson doesn’t try; within a book on collective hysteria the answer probably depends upon individual personalities. Speaking only for myself, as much I’d like to deny it, I suspect there are various values, habits, tastes, and patterns that link to my adolescence. But I would argue against anyone who finds the hysteria part of novel far-fetched. As H. L. Mencken is credited with saying, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” That wasn’t his exact quote, but close enough! 


Rob Weir


Three Documentaries That Could Have Been Better


Documentaries are often a problematic film genre. They are didactic by nature, not “movies” whose major purpose is to entertain. Good ones present new information; mediocre ones merely rehash the familiar under the pretense of “discovery.” I tend to avoid ones that deal with traumatic subjects with which I’m already familiar, but offer no solutions. Why wallow in sorrow or anger? Quite a few documentaries disappoint because they could/should have been better. Here are three that are perfectly decent, but left me wanting more.



Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (2021)

Directed by Robert Weide and Don Argott

IFC Films, 127 minutes, not rated




 What’s new: As he grew older, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) settled into a self-crafted public persona: witty, eccentric, harmlessly cranky, aloof. He was deep into that role when he was a writer-in-residence at Smith College and overlapped with my time there. The most revelatory part of the documentary shows a tender, sentimental side at odds with the image he cultivated. Interviews with some of his children–three biological and four adopted–adds a personal touch. One that resonates out my way comes from his daughter Nanny, an artist who lives in Northampton, MA.


What’s old: Talking heads are a documentary cliché. Did we need testimonials from a Morley Safer or a John Irving to tell us that Vonnegut was an interesting writer? Likewise, his foundational experiences– growing up in Indianapolis, being a POW in Dresden during World War II, working for GE, struggling to get published–are decidedly old info.


What’s bad: I want a law that bans filmmakers from telling us how hard it was to make their documentaries. Memo: All filmmakers struggle to bring their vision into being! Co-director Robert Weide tells us he doesn’t want the film to be about himself, but that’s exactly what he gave us. He had a 40 year friendship with Vonnegut, but we learn as much about how Weibe’s other projects–Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parks and Recreation, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth–sidetracked his documentary than we do about his subject. Even IMDB calls this one “a filmmaker’s journey.”



Be There to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)

Directed by Margaret Brown

Palm Pictures, 99 minutes, not rated




What’s new: What’s new is exactly what made Townes Van Zandt (1944-97) an almost impossible subject: He was an alcoholic, a heroin addict, suffered from mental illness, and an id-driven individual. The external squalor of his life was more extensive than you might imagine.

What’s old: Van Zandt is presented as a lynchpin of the outlaw country movement. I’m not sure he was that influential, but this is a well-traveled assertion. We also see a parade of other “outlaws,” such as Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Guy Clark, the true father of the genre. They paled around with Van Zandt, rehashed old stories and each, of course, declared him a genius. 


What’s bad: Director Margaret Brown couldn’t find a center to give coherence to her film, which gives it a random and episodic feel. I really wanted her to make me admire Van Zandt, but she could not make sense him. This may rub some readers the wrong way, but I think Van Zandt was overrated. He wrote a few gems–“Pancho and Lefty,” “Waitin’ Around to Die,” and “If I Needed You” are my favorites–but the film didn’t change my opinion about is overall repertoire.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

Directed by Tamra Brown

 Arthouse Films, 90 minutes, not rated.



What’s new: I was late to the party in appreciating street art, which has been elevated to the kind of art that gallery owners sell for major bucks. The commodification of street art came more rapidly and was more extensive than I realized. The best insights into Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) come from other artists such as Julian Schnabel, Fab Five Freddy, and Kenny Scharf. (Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is pretty good as well.)


What’s old: Tamra Brown spends a lot of time presenting the views of collectors, gallery owners, and the self-proclaimed (read pretentious) New York avantgarde who pursue the darling of the moment. Do we need more validation that they are the equivalent of sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyers? 


What’s bad: Nothing is bad per se, but once I started to appreciate street/outsider art, the figure who most perplexed me was Basquiat, whose use of repetition and symbolism requires decoding. The film’s tone is flat and my attention began to drift. It was also too laudatory. I learned to appreciate and see some of Basquiat’s personal and artistic flaws, but  from a 2020 MFA Boston exhibition and from Jane Oneail of Culturally Curious.


Rob Weir





All the Pretty Horses a Fine Anti-Western



By Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 302 pages.




I’ve heard good things about the two new novels of Cormac McCarthy, so I decided to read his National Book Award winner All the Pretty Horses as a prelude. It’s a novel I intended to read for a long time, but I simply never got around to it until now. Maybe I was put off by the poor reception of the movie adaptation that starred the always-forgettable Matt Damon and was directed by flavor-of-the-moment Billy Bob Thornton, whom I find creepy. But back to the book.


As many know, this was Book 1 of his Border Trilogy, the demarcation in question being that between the Southwest and Mexico. All the Pretty Horses got a lot of love from critics and mixed reviews from the reading public. Some no doubt disliked McCarthy’s anti-Western framing that has little to do with the romantic image many Americans hold of a West that never was. The novel is set in 1949, a time that’s a good candidate for the actual closing of the frontier rather than 1890, the marker upheld by the Census Bureau and a famed study by Frederick Jackson Turner. (He later repudiated his own assumption, but never mind!)


The anti-heroes of this anti-Western are 16-year-old John Grady Cole and his 17-year-old best buddy Lacey Rawlins. If either lad got much book learning in school, it thoroughly wore off by the time they reached adolescence. Both are more suited for a cowboy life than the emerging world represented by the highways and rail lines that bisect what was once open range. Cole’s life is upended when his grandfather dies, his parents separate, and the ranch he hoped to inherit is sold. For no good reason other than the need for a change, Cole and Rawlins decide to leave San Angelo, Texas, and ride their horses Redbo and Junior to Mexico with the vague idea that there might be better opportunities there. It helps that Cole speaks passable Spanish. The book has numerous Spanish conversations, of which McCarthy translates only a few, but you can get by fine if, like me, your Spanish vocabulary doesn’t extend much beyond taco and cerveza.


It wasn’t hard to jump borders in those days. Technically a 1929 act tightened crossings, but it wasn’t much enforced until a new immigration act in 1965. For Cole and Rawlins, the hardest part was riding across arid sections of west Texas until they reached a shallow enough part of the Rio Grande to swim their horses across. They are soon joined by a third, a kid calling himself Jimmy Blevins. Everything about him screams “trouble.” He says he’s the same age, but he’s probably around 14, syas little about himself, shoots like a demon, and rides an impressive stallion. Cole thinks he’s a thief who stole pistol and his mount alike and is probably fleeing the law. They lose him at one point, though his blend of bad news returns.


Cole and Rawlins eventually make their way to the grassy Coahuila region where they secure jobs on a hacienda run by a wealthy individual. Cole impresses the owner and the local vaqueros with his horse whispering skills and is respected there. If only he hadn’t allowed his eye to wander to the owner’s beautiful daughter Alejandra. There’s a considerable social class gap between the two, their mutual physical attraction notwithstanding.


McCarthy readers know that he likes themes of angst, danger, and being pursued. All the Pretty Horses has plenty of that, as well as a vengeful aunt, a Mexican jail that Putin might envy, killings, horse rustling, remorse, and a strong mixture of bravado, courage, and naiveté. There can be no denying that it’s a very XY novel. Some have called it a coming of age tale, though I’d call it a passing of an age work. One could see Cole as the last free spirit in an American society that clings to the myth of individualism.


Some readers disliked the novel’s slow pace, which stands in marked contrast to the elegiac tone McCarthy used to describe the land and horses. I learned a new term in research: polysyndetic syntax–the use of conjunctions to slow the rhythm of the prose, a way of saying that McCarthy wanted readers to experience the languid pace of rural life. Call it a love story about girl and horses and bet on the four-footed species.


Rob Weir