Set in 1996 Coalfield, Tennessee, the novel perfectly captures the ennui of small-town life as experienced by 15-year-old Frankie. The lonely teenage girl faces a long, uneventful summer with nothing to do except work on her novel about an evil Nancy Drew.
Frankie is tortured by adolescent restlessness, desperate for something — anything — to happen; desperate for her life to begin. Adding to her anxiety is the liminal space she occupies between childhood and adulthood, on summer break between 10th and 11th grades, in a transitional family adapting to an absent father. The pressure is almost too much to bear.
Her relief valve appears in the form of Zeke, a goofy kid with funny teeth and a talent for drawing, whom she meets at the community pool. New in town and friendless, he’s spending the summer with his grandmother while his mother mourns her fractured marriage.
Frankie and Zeke quickly bond over their low social status and creative natures. Although they exchange a few kisses, they’re more interested in making art than making out.
“(W)eirdness was the thread that connected us,” observes Frankie. “(W)e made each other feel like the rest of the world wasn’t real.”
Zeke sparks something in Frankie, unleashing a creative urge that results in her writing the phrase, “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” It becomes a mantra for Frankie, something she will repeat to herself for the rest of her life. But first, she turns it into a poster, illustrated by Zeke, which they plaster all over town.
“(I)t was the most important thing in the world to me. I would have gone to jail for the poster. I think I would have killed someone if they tried to keep me from putting up the poster. Because if it stopped, what was next? Zeke would leave. I’d never see him again. I’d go back to school invisible, sad. … I wanted the summer, that poster. I wanted the edge, the shantytown, the gold seekers.”
Aching to be seen by a community that routinely overlooks her, Frankie eagerly awaits some sort of public response to the poster. It’s slow to come, but when it does, it tragically snowballs into what would come to be known as the Coalfield Panic of 1996.
The story of the Coalfield Panic is told from Frankie’s adult perspective in 2017, and her telling is filled with nostalgic longing for her friendship with Zeke and the critical role he played in shaping the person she has become. The love she feels for him is unshakeable, despite his misdeeds. Equally unshakeable is her belief in the power of art. If there’s anything the poster has taught her, it’s that when all else fails, art can save you.
Wilson occupies a unique niche in literature. He is a master of creating indelibly peculiar characters with odd passions and traits. His previous novels include “The Family Fang,” about a pair of subversive performance artists who force their children to participate, and “Nothing to See Here,” about a woman entrusted with the care of two young children who burst into flames when they’re agitated.
All those peccadillos have a purpose, though. They give shape to the characters’ humanity and fuel narrative arcs that tell evocative tragicomic stories about family, friendship, love and art that end on a note of cautious optimism. And honestly, isn’t that the best we can reasonably hope for in life?
Through much of the novel, Frankie feels empowered by her secret. I can relate. For introverts, performing a public act in secret is a perfect way to receive recognition while still deflecting the white-hot heat of attention that makes them squirm. As for Wilson, he seems to make the case that some secrets are meant to be kept, and some are meant to be told. Deciphering the difference between the two is what helps define us.
Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at email@example.com.