“Wichita,” by Thad Ziolkowski, is one of the best coming of age novels I have read in some time. Its central character, Lewis Chopik, is complicated, flawed, stubborn and somewhat lost. Despite, or perhaps because of those qualities, he somehow remains immensely likeable and relatable. “Wichita” serves as a great example of an author knowing how to weave humor, drama, tension and tragedy empathetically among a motley cast of characters—each one the type to easily fall into stereotype, which the author thankfully avoids.
The story follows Lewis as he travels back to his mother’s house after graduating from Columbia University with no concrete plans for the future. A relaxing time home with his mother is what he seeks, but far from what he gets. Immediately upon his arrival, complications ensue between Lewis and his mother, his bipolar brother, his mother’s boyfriends and more. His prior determination to remain aloof from the intersecting personalities present in his mother’s home and her yard crumbles quickly and Lewis lets his family suck him right back into their squabbles and problems.
Lewis’ brother Seth stands out as the most fascinating and heartbreaking character. His disease has ruined his life and caused friction and pain for everyone around him. At times, he seems to grasp this and truly desires to change. Other times, he seems hell-bent on swinging the wrecking ball that is Seth into as much as he can. Through it all, we see this yearning for acceptance from Lewis fight with his resentment at Lewis’ apparent ease in escaping Wichita. That resentment is evident in the relationship between Lewis and his mother as well.
Further complicating all of this is Lewis’ own resentment at his father and his father’s family. Lewis is stuck between one side of his family that feels he’s not good enough for them (due to his extended time spent in Wichita no doubt) and the other who doesn’t necessarily understand why he left them for New York City and another life. This back and forth is visceral, it’s messy, it’s fractious and for the reader it’s fascinating. Abby, Lewis’ mother is a lion of a woman with no idea what she wants to do or where to focus the strength and energy she has.
Towards Lewis, she feels like a stranger; towards Seth, she feels at times powerless to do anything but rein him in with as light a leash as she can and hope for the best. Lewis’ father Virgil, a university professor, is a man lost in his own intelligence. He is the perfect logical, grounded and out of touch foil for his ex-wife Abby’s earthy, emotional and flighty nature. Virgil has no idea what to do with or about Seth either, his one attempt to bring him to NYC a wholesale disaster. Lewis challenges Virgil in another way, displaying a lack of drive Virgil and his family find confusing and almost alien.
Rounding out this family is a cast of supporting characters that fleshes out a tight narrative involving Abby’s new storm chasing business. The parallels between chasing storms and Seth’s destructive nature, simultaneously subtle and eloquent, were a highlight for me. By the last pages, I was in tears. Ziolkowski brings his story to an emotional climax that manages resolution without tidy, neat corners. His book was one of the most welcome surprises I have read this year; I highly recommend for your summer reading list. It reads maybe too quickly, but if you bring “Wichita” to the beach, prepare to sit there longer than you planned. This is my ninth Europa this year.
Full disclosure: this book was sent by Europa as an advance copy, however not for review purposes.