Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hometown pride! (Wichita, Thad Ziolkowski)

[So, a certain me was planning to read 12 Europas this year. As the kids don't say anymore, LOL. Three I think is more realistic? Herewith, number 1.]

As a Midwesterner living in NYC, I'll admit I've got a chip on my shoulder. "I'm from Wichita!" I'll say. "It's a city! We have ethnic grocery stores and gay people and gang violence and everything!" Thus my first reaction to seeing Thad Ziolkowski's Wichita was trepidation . . . and the first sentence, wherein the characters pass a farm while driving from the airport to someplace else in town (College Hill-ish, I pictured), did not assuage my nerves. Cause guys, it's freeways and strip malls and subdivisions all the way.

But while a native would've written it differently, it is Europa . . . I got faith in these folks (thanks esp. to Michael, who accepted my hometown-pride fact-checking ever so graciously!). And it turns out it's a wonderful novel, which portrays the real, complicated, non-nutjobby (OK, more diversely nutjobby than you think, you East Coast elitists in my audience) city I know and love.

Lewis Chopik has retreated to Kansas following an ignominious breakup--he proved insufficiently academically ambitious for his ex-girlfriend, and, he fears, for his father's family, professors all. His mother, Abby, doesn't find his aimlessness a problem in the slightest; after all, she's still finding her way in middle age, isn't she? Current projects: polyamory (one boyfriend in the house, one in a marijuana-scented tent in the backyard); a ladies-only pyramid scheme called "The Birthday Party"; an idiosyncratic New Age stormchasing business, Grateful Gaia Storm Tours. To Lewis's horror, she's chosen not to worry overmuch about his bipolar younger brother, Seth.

Seth's character is amazing: funny, dangerous, heartbreaking, smart enough--as many mentally ill folk are--to realize his own madness and his helplessness before it, which leads him to rage and despair by turns. All the family members are similarly well drawn--Abby in her nebulous pursuit of Big Ideas and neglect of the immediate, Lewis in his floundering ineffectiveness, the vicious, blinkered Chopiks, who've dwelt so long in ivory towers they literally can't fathom why anyone would want anything else.

The book climaxes with a storm chase--convincing to me (though meteorologists might find errors, who knows), and weirdly prescient. On April 14, a tornado tore across the southeast edge of the city, destroying homes and damaging several buildings at the aircraft plant where my father works. No one was killed in Wichita; in Wichita, not everyone is so lucky.

(Original review here.)