If the Coalfield Panic were to happen today, it would dominate the news cycle for 10 minutes before it got subsumed by another, more sensational story. In middle-of-nowhere Tennessee in 1996, Frankie Budge and her new friend, Zeke, create a poster and plaster it all over town as performance art. Unfortunately, the poster catches people's imagination for all the wrong reasons, and it stays in the larger public consciousness for longer than Frankie and Zeke ever wanted. The signature slogan is Frankie's, "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us." To the two teenage misfits in Coalfield, the writing sounds subversive yet safe. But once the narrative gets out of control, it creates serious and lasting damage, enough to cast a long shadow on Frankie's adult life. Wilson (Nothing to See Here, 2020) has developed a story that is a precise capture of adolescence and of two vibrant teens whose everyday dilemmas, weaknesses, and triumphs are utterly endearing. If the denouement feels a little pat, it is more than made up for by the crisp dialogue and the zipping story line that takes us there.
The irrepressible Wilson presents a grunge-era fable about a pre-internet mass-hysteria incident and the alchemy of art. Family dramas and short stories are the author's sweet spots, but for this emotionally acute peek into the inner life of the artist, he's turned to the uncomfortable exile of adolescence. Coalfield, Tennessee, circa 1996 is as remote (and boring) as any rural American outpost, so budding teen writer Frances "Frankie" Budge is intrigued when Zeke, a strange boy from Memphis, shows up at the public pool. "This town is weird," the stranger observes. "It's like a bomb was dropped on it, and you guys are just getting back to normal." In the grip of summer's dog days, Frankie and Zeke pursue their artistic outlets elbow to elbow, hers the written word, his visual arts. Joining forces, they make a poster emblazoned with a throwaway couplet about outlaws on the run: "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us." Soon, they commandeer an old copy machine and plaster the town with their anonymous manifesto, punctuated by inevitable adolescent canoodling. What follows is a rough approximation of the "Satanic panic" of the Reagan-era 1980s, as the media labels the work "troubling street art" before it snowballs into a national hysteria that fortunately exists mostly on the periphery here. Wilson ignores the low-hanging fruit--Frankie and Zeke's relationship is fundamentally a coming-of-age tale, but not in the way you might think. Instead, he focuses on the wonderful, terrible, transformative power of art. The catalyst for Frankie's reluctant confession, 20 years later, is a visit from a New Yorker art critic convinced that Frankie wrote the infamous, trouble-causing line. In a world where art is often dismissed, Frankie will learn whether the line she created still holds the power she'd thought long since lost. A warm, witty two-hander that sidesteps the clichés of art school and indie film and treats its free spirits with respect. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Wilson (Nothing to See Here) spins a delightful story of two aspiring artists in small-town Tennessee. It's 1996 when Frankie Bulger, an outcast who dreams of becoming a writer, meets Zeke, also 16, who is new to town. Together they make a poster with the cryptic line "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us." Thrilled at their creation, Frankie and Zeke make hundreds of copies of it on a photocopier stolen by Frankie's triplet brothers, then post them around town. Copycats begin doing the same, and before long, local and national newspapers report on the panic caused by the posters, fashion brands reproduce the slogan on T-shirts, and tourists arrive in droves. Frankie and Zeke keep their involvement a secret until 22 years later, when a journalist finds out Frankie's role. Confronted with the possibility of her secret coming out, Frankie goes on a quest to come clean with her family and reconnect with old friends. Wilson ably captures Frankie and her peers' adolescent confusion and the creative power of like-minded teens, and his coming-of-age story is ripe with wisdom about what art means in the modern age. It adds up to a surprisingly touching time capsule of youth in the '90s. Agent: Julie Barer, Book Group. (Nov.)
Wilson (Nothing To See Here) has been carefully building his literary cachet over the past decade, and he's produced perhaps his most emotionally nuanced and profoundly empathetic novel yet. It tells the story of a 1996 Ohio summer during which two teen outcasts produce a mysterious work of art that instigates a Satanic Panic--style mass hysteria in their hometown simply by virtue of its poetic inscrutability. Wilson appropriates the absurdist foundation of 1980s/1990s moral panic phenomena to cushion his cultural critique, and there's a baked-in nostalgia to the book's aesthetic as he demonstrates a keen understanding of the fickleness of adolescence--how "[we] talked about what we always talked about…trying to adequately explain ourselves to another person"--and particularly how we alternately seek to preserve our formative years in amber and to fast-forward toward their expiration. But rather than leveraging any of this toward shallow buzzword topicality, Wilson meaningfully crafts formed characters, allowing his work to register as a universal document of teenage turmoil as blessedly compassionate as it is cunning. VERDICT Highly recommended as a sincere, sometimes brutal, but always sturdy study of the burden of both art and adolescence and a wonderfully evocative treatise on how we imprint ourselves on the world and learn to survive in that tumultuous wake.--Luke Gorham