It takes a certain kind of writer to pull off a wild rumpus of a book. (Particularly, when there are no accompanying illustrations of teeth and eyes and claws.) Acclaimed poet (Our Son the Arson) and memoirist (On a Wave) Thad Ziolkowski has accomplished that rare and wholly refreshing feat in his debut novel. Funny, smart, outlandish, poignant and strange, Wichita taps the full range of emotions in an exuberant American tale of brothers wrestling demons and each other on opposite poles of their grab bag of a family.
The plot, if one were to distill it, is not unfamiliar. After five years Lewis Chopik has finally graduated from an elite East-coast university. Heartbroken and unsure as to his next step, he returns home for the summer a far cry from hipster cool or Ivy League success:Â â€œthe full beard, grown out slightly ahead of the New York fashion curve,Â seems to have lost its quotation marks in transit: he looks like a laid-off lumberjack.â€Â His troubled brother, Seth, also shows up at his motherâ€™s doorstep with a beard of runic lettering tattoos across his face. Â While on the surface it seems hard to believe that these siblings share a genetic makeup â€“ Lewis grapples with his ambivalence toward an academic path mapped out by his father while Seth, a high school dropout, possesses a singular unquenchable thirst for self-destruction â€“ ultimately, they prove more alike than either may consciously admit.
We all come from crazy families but Ziolkowski takes the crazy to new heights. Divorced when the kids were young, Seth and Lewisâ€™ parents could not be more different. Their father, Virgil, is a rather buttoned-up and narcissistic professor; their mother, Abby, is a free-spirited eccentric. Virgilâ€™s own parents are so formal and cold that they hold a stubborn grudge over their grandson, Lewis, on account of a missing thank-you note:
â€œTheyâ€™ll never let this go; theyâ€™ll follow him to the ends of the earth with his thank-you note in their teeth. Heâ€™ll die in Sumatra of encephalitis and the last thing theyâ€™ll say over his grave, or rather to each other over the phone (since they wouldnâ€™t bother making the trip to Sumatra): he never did send that thank-you note to Grandpa.â€
In Kansas, Abbyâ€™s open door policy welcomes a revolving cast of oddballs, some of whom are recruits for her feminist Ponzi scheme called the â€œbirthday partyâ€, and some of whom are acolytes of Seth, like Cody, a wife-beater wearing former Latter Day Saint fundamentalist, and a biker babe named Tory with â€œcleavage suggestive of blissful asphyxiation.â€Â Abby herself navigates a â€œpolyamorousâ€ lifestyle with Bishop, a drug lab scientist who camps in a tent on their lawn, and a sleep-walking stiff named Donald. The latter fades as the narrative unfolds, with Bishop â€“ who becomes Abbyâ€™s business partner in her new venture, Grateful Gaia Storm Tours (a.k.a. storm chasing with a new age twist) â€“ occupying the foreground in full color â€œwearing an unbuttoned madras shirt, shorts that might be boxers, cheap flip-flops, like heâ€™s on his drag-ass way to the communal bathroom in a flophouse.â€
In the company of merry pranksters anything goes, and for a while the novel cruises along from house to yard, bowling alley to neighborhood restaurant/bar, buoyed by its fast and fluid dialogue. In between thereâ€™s chunks of back history designed to shed some light on why these young men, brothers, are troubled in the ways that they are. The seeds of Sethâ€™s bipolar illness and death wish spring for an adolescent glory seeds trip. Lewis may or may not have had an affair with his own stepmother, Sophie. Memories of his fatherâ€™s highbrow side of the family darken. â€œIf all that could break apart like bread in water, what is it, what was it?â€ At times, the reader may wonder whatâ€™s at stake and where itâ€™s all headed, particularly when some fringe characters are wonderfully introduced then dropped, but Ziolkowskiâ€™s writing is so lively and engaging that the pure reading of itâ€™s a pleasure. He has an eye for the bizarre. Nothing is normal. An everyday bed â€œfeels like the worldâ€™s largest slab of cream cheese.â€Â And of all descriptions Iâ€™ve ever read of a sky never before have I encountered â€œthe white sky spins like a layer of fat on tissue.â€
Ziolkowski, who runs the writing program at Pratt Institute, showcases a real gift for clever, often ironic dialogue. Â Upon being challenged by her son for driving a gas-guzzling vehicle, Abby, the new age hippie, responds, â€œOh Lewis, please. Thereâ€™s no solution at the level of the problemâ€¦ Do you really believe, does anyone truly believe, that if we tiptoe around and reduce our collective carbon footprint itâ€™s going to solve this mess?â€
Although the novelâ€™s slacker feel may suit its characters letâ€™s not forget: It is tornado season in their hometown of Wichita, Kansas.Â As Bishop puts it, weather â€œis inseparable from consciousness.â€ Storms are brewing â€“ in the sky and on the ground. Seth, in particular, seems to be spiraling out of control. His death wish is stronger than ever. For all its levity and banter tensions are mounting. There is a profound cloud of doom hovering overhead that sets the pace and steers the novel to its inevitable climax: when the motley crew drives headlong into the eye of the storm. As Grateful Gaia Storm Tours offers Drew, a hapless paying customer, the chance to â€œcore-punchâ€ the tornado, Bishop, Abbyâ€™s psychedelic drug-manufacturing boyfriend, says, â€œWell I can assure you, this will be a unique experience. Weâ€™re utterly unlike the pack. Weâ€™re not part of the pack whatsoever.â€
As the drama reaches its crescendo the writing â€“ intentionally, most likely â€“ loses some of its crispness, as if to mirror the impending chaos on the page. For instance, the rain, which â€œsounds like the crackling of bacon grease amplifiedâ€ morphs into hail a few lines down, and â€œsounds like gravel rattling angrily down on the car with a kind of sentient hostility.â€ Â Each description is fine (if merely decorative) on its own, but the piling on of images has a dulling, almost overwritten effect, which is unfortunate.Â When they actually encounter the funnel cloud, Ziolkowski misses an opportunity. â€œThen itâ€™s simply there, out of nowhere, this long stout elephant trunk or length of intestine.â€ Â A former teacher, Dani Shapiro (one of the most precise writers around) said once if I had a three car pileup of imagery for a single thing thatâ€™s probably a good indication none is exact, and I should probably do a bit more digging to find it. Not three, but ONE.Â In this case, had Ziolkowski exercised a bit more restraint and selected only â€œthe elegant length of intestineâ€ his sentence would have delivered the perfect note in a crucial moment.
Spoiler Alert: Seth, the suicide-obsessed brother, is about to meet his match in the tornado. And yet, with death stamped everywhere across this novel, from allusions to Yeatsâ€™ The Second Coming to an actual tattoo across Sethâ€™s chest that reads â€œIn Loving Memory of Seth Chopikâ€ it feels fitting that he doesnâ€™t make it out from this point of no return, where â€œthings fall apart; the center cannot hold.â€ Throughout much of the book I had that pit feeling of dread and excitement I get upon inching up the pitch of a roller coaster before the big drop. The reader is waiting for it, all of it, so twisted as it may sound, there is something gratifying and calming about reading how Sethâ€™s death plays out.
The tale ending requires some suspension of disbelief and is a bit of a letdown, but somehow that hardly detracts from the lawless beauty of this intelligent and unusual debut. Wichita will leave you laughing and aching and more; it will never quite leave you.
~Sara Lippmann is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on twitter at â€¦.~