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. Continue reading