Wichita by Thad Ziolkowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lewis Chopik is in a bad way. He's just graduated with a perfectly useless literary degree from Columbia, while his feminist ex-girlfriend has graduated to a more prestigious boyfriend — a tenured professor. With his ego and libido in ruins, Lewis accepts an invitation from his New Agey mother to stay at her house in Wichita for the summer, while she gets her tornado-chasing tour business up and running.
Lewis wonders just how prepared he is for the scene that awaits him in Wichita. But how, exactly, does a guy prepare himself to be around his bipolar younger brother Seth, their erotically supple mother and her various off-the-grid companions? There is no preparation for this scene; best just to dive head-first into the maelstrom, and hope for the best.
Thad Ziolkowski's picaresque first novel reads somewhat like a hybrid of early Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) and John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy Of Dunces). There are plenty of off-color, wryly-observed misadventures to be had in Wichita, but the cold undertow of Seth's genuine struggles with mental illness keeps the larger narrative from eddying into counter-cultural farce. In this regard, Ziolkowski's writing puts me in mind of another contemporary: Miriam Toews. Readers of Ziolkowski's earlier book, On A Wave (the best coming-of-age surfing memoir to hit the shelves), recognize Seth as a fictive stand-in for Adam, the author's late younger brother, to whom the novel is dedicated. As with Toews, there is a creative acknowledgement of the surprise adventures that arise from a chemically beleaguered brain. Unlike Toews, Ziolkowski has no religious bogeyman to which he can pin the ghastly collapse that punctuates these bipolar episodes.
Ziokowski's strikes me as the more poignant approach. As the tornado closes in on the small community of off-beat but recognizable characters, the reader has to wonder if our society — or even our species — isn't possessed of a bipolar disorder. I mean, for Christ's sake: we've gone and changed the weather. Like Ziolkowski's tiny community in Wichita, we are lovable, contemptible agents of unmanageable change. What do we do — what can we do — in the face of the coming storm?
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