Thad Ziolkowski’s debut novel Wichita is a bit of a slow read. Difficult, overly professional prose trips. Precise descriptions park you. And sometimes, the thing makes you think about brotherhood or family or what it really means to be an academic (or, coincidentally, an asshole). And then you’re off in a rabbit-hole of memory.
As such, it (or you) proceeds at a glacial pace—until the end where, cliche be damned, it comes together.
There are big characters in Wichita. Abby, mother of two fully grown boys, lives a polyamorous lifestyle—one man living in her house, one man tented in the backyard. Seth, Abby’s youngest son, is a bipolar transient with cutting wit and a posse that includes strippers, drifters, and other outcasts. Bishop, the backyard lover, is a chemist who devotes most of his time to engineering the perfect recreational drug, logging the effects of each trip with jarring precision.
And then there’s our protagonist, Lewis Chopik, brother of Seth and son of Abby (and her ex-husband, Virgil). Lewis just graduated from Columbia, cumma sum laude. (Yes, Seth makes the obvious ejaculation joke.) After getting dumped by his girlfriend—and being hyper-aware of his academic Virgil’s expectations for his scholarly future—Lewis heads back to Wichita, where he spent most of his childhood. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of conflict here. New York City! Wichita! East Coast Academia! Whatever the fuck there is in Wichita!
Perhaps it’s the anticipation of a tired conceit—(a) white person graduates college, (b) white person realizes college might not be the bridge to adulthood after all, (c) white person ends up back home, (d) white person finds self (+ the whole Midwest yokels v. East Coast elitists thing)—or the hope that Abby, Seth, and Bishop (among others) will do something more than get high, talk about existentialism, or get high some more, but there’s something quite sleepy about the first 200 or so pages of Wichita. Ziolkowski shows us these dynamic characters, but little else. It’d be like if Falling Down was all about Michael Douglas’s character before he went off the deep end—you know, here he is pumping gas, here is making his lunch, here he is relaxing after a long day! It’s a slow build, in other words. It’s a slow build, in other words.
But, in some ways, it suits the storyline. In New York City, time moved quickly for Lewis: he was on cocaine some of the time, for one, and his five years (not four) at Columbia went by so quick he couldn’t (or chose not to) meet his deadlines for fellowships and graduate programs, and it’s New York! The consummate fast city. Time moves slower in Wichita. Whenever a character notes the timeline (“This happened yesterday…blah blah blah”), it’s difficult to believe—has it really been one day?
Oh, it has. And it’s grating. You feel like Lewis—how do people live in Wichita? He tries meth. He fantasizes about sleeping with just about anyone. He doesn’t practice his German or think much about what to do with his graduation gift from Abby ($5000). He’s just around.
On the East Coast, his father’s side (the academic side) wonders where he’s going. Virgil’s a professor at Columbia; his brother and brother’s wife are at NYU, Cyrus (“the paterfamilias”) emeritus at Harvard. There are expectations for Lewis: don’t be a fuck-up. And with an academic family, being a fuck-up isn’t so black and white. To most families, Seth’s probably a fuck-up—drifting around, getting a tattoo on his face, marrying an older cokehead, etc. And that’s no different with the Chopiks; Seth’s barely considered a member of the family anymore. For Lewis, however, the expectation is that he plies his craft in a serious, humorless academic field; a noble career dedicated to scholarship. No tractor-humping in the Midwest.
This is probably the dullest conflict in Wichita, that between the East Coast academia and the Midwestern (perceived) aimlessness. All the academics speak in italics (“That was really quite inconsiderate…”), with little regard for humanity outside the Ivy League. It’s a broad, boring caricature. But that’s all later resolved.
When the action finally picks up in Wichita, it’s dizzying. The characters, deftly developed in the early going, are fleshed out in the course of a tornado chase—Abby has started a storm-chasing business with a new-agey feel—that brings out something in everyone there: Abby is sharp, Bishop is daring even when not cooking up a batch of synthetic peyote, and Seth is suicidal. It’s a tragic but not unforeseeable ending—one I’ve already half-spoiled—that feels right. It’s the catalyst that helps resolve every conflict left—a sharp turn that’s neither gratuitous nor forced.
There’s a bow—or some resolution—put on the whole thing that makes it all feel right, that makes it feel like Ziolkowski knew what he was doing all along. That it’s a debut is surprising in retrospect; how Ziolkowski felt confident enough, self-assured enough to guide us through some forgettable moments, all the while building to an emotional, fervent finish is beyond me.
It’s a bold novel. Big characters acting small, rising to the occasion when called, when it’s right.