Near the end of “Wichita,” Thad Ziolkowski’s first novel, the protagonist recalls a line from Rilke: “You are not surprised at the force of the storm — you have seen it growing.” It’s a passing reference; the character, Lewis, neither dwells on the line nor mentions the poem it comes from, “Onto a Vast Plain.” But Ziolkowski is an accomplished poet, and it’s not hard to see Rilke’s great poem about grief as the secret heart beating through this charming, smart and devastating book.
The novel begins with Lewis’s return to his mother’s home in Wichita, Kan., from New York, where he has just graduated from Columbia. His pompous professor father, Virgil, expects him to attend graduate school, though Lewis is unsure of his next step. His girlfriend has left him, and his divorced, eccentric mother, Abby — who invests in one “multilevel marketing” scheme after another — has “half-facetiously” suggested he return to “the healing powers of the Great Plains,” where she has begun a storm-chasing business.
Lewis is not the only one returning home. His younger brother, Seth, is supposed to be away at an “art school/spa for the wealthy,” working as a groundskeeper and modeling for drawing classes. But when Lewis and Abby pull into the driveway, Seth is there, “waving his arms in the middle of the street as if flagging down a car on a country road.” On Seth’s collarbone is “a swath of new-tattoo bandage, which glows faintly in the dusk.” His presence is electric.
Seth is a storm of his own: complex, maddening and finely wrought. You want to wring his neck while you embrace him. He is heartbreakingly bipolar, he does a lot of meth, and no matter how strung out or volatile he becomes, the most unlikely individuals glance his way for approval. Even self-absorbed Virgil becomes self-aware when Seth is involved.
In “Wichita,” the wise are ludicrous and the ludicrous wise — but never in such an obvious 180-degree flip. The novel resists common assumptions about the Midwest and the East Coast, or, specifically, the two Americas. Yes, Lewis’s beard “seems to have lost its quotation marks in transit: he looks like a laid-off lumberjack.” But Abby is no red-state matron, what with her Ponzi schemes and her two boyfriends (one in the house and one in a tent in the backyard). Regarding both Seth and his mother, Lewis is less surprised than simply inured, though when he finally sees what Seth has tattooed onto his collarbone, he is powerfully shaken.
Ziolkowski allows his characters a full range of emotional complexity. Lewis’s mother likes to quote Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?” She drives a Cadillac Escalade, which if we’re generalizing seems more in line with Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes. Yet the novel doesn’t completely do away with familiar types, either: “There are more pickup trucks in the driveways than he remembers ever seeing at once, shiny Fords and Dodges, red or black. Bass boats under tarpaulins, trailers with plywood siding. The tone is no-nonsense, stowed and lashed down, like military housing.” The surroundings of Lewis’s neighborhood feel typical even if his quirky family and those who surround them never do.
The characters remain recognizable, though, which helps reinforce Ziolkowski’s mood of gentle satire. Lewis’s ex-girlfriend is as perplexed as Virgil by his decision to abandon the academy. “What did Lewis propose to do,” she asks, “work?” Virgil might come off as the archetypal medievalist professor sequestered with his papers, but his conservative ideas about proper social behavior make him less absent-minded than stuffy. Comically bent out of shape by Lewis’s failure to send a thank-you card to his grandfather, Virgil overdramatizes the transgression only to be met with Seth’s (not Lewis’s) equally dramatic reaction.
Social niceties become particularly pointed considering the feelings of Virgil’s family about Seth: He “was clinically insane and, for the sake of everyone’s peace of mind and concentration, should be forgotten about, disowned, disavowed, barred.” Ironic, and troubling, all of it. For all of Virgil’s insistence on grace, his family is the one lacking it. They have exiled Seth, who needs family most, to the ranks of the insignificant.
Yet Seth may be the most significant character in the book. Certainly he’s the most captivating. Once, during a hallucinogenic experience some years earlier, Seth was convinced he had died. Afterward he confessed to Abby that “he wanted to finish the job; he wanted to die the rest of the way.” (To quote another passage from Rilke: “Now you feel / it wants to sink back / into the source of everything.”) Reflecting on his brother, Lewis thinks, “How deeply hard to have a child like this.” But Abby is not one to qualify relationships as easy or hard. To her, it seems, they just are. What makes Seth difficult is also what makes him Seth, and her nonjudgmental view of the world, as the book goes on, becomes more nuanced and graceful. At first glance we might dismiss her as amusing or flaky — polyamorous, storm-chasing, Cadillac-driving Abby — but to look at Ziolkowski’s characters as simply an accumulation of their traits is to look at them too simply. Character is destiny, after all, and their choices give them strength.
Then, in a moment of pronounced beauty, Abby’s already strong character opens up and blooms. As receptive as she is to Seth’s highs and lows, she reacts with fierce judgment when he makes a particular mention of suicide. “You seem pretty damn insane to me,” she says. “Insane is a lack of gratitude for life; insane is arrogance and recklessness and impiety.” If Seth does not take responsibility for his own role in the “quality” of his “experience,” she will commit him back to the “psych pod.” Seth, “temporarily stunned into non-insanity,” says nothing.
Later, when the family and one earnest client, Abby’s first, finally chase a tornado, Seth does take charge of his experience, and we can hear Abby’s words like a howling, whistling wind. Perhaps Seth does, too.
To chase a storm is to play games with death, to indulge one’s mortality and feelings of immortality. Thematically it might all seem a bit heavy-handed, but just because you see the tornado looming in the open sky doesn’t mean you’ll alter its path or make it less destructive. “You made a tornado happen after all — it was just a bit delayed!” Lewis says in Seth’s ear. And like Prospero in “The Tempest,” who conjures his own storm, Seth also hopes his audience’s indulgence will set him free.
“Wichita” is a novel about expectations and outcomes, about what is open and what is veiled. Its emotional terrain is touching and vast. Whereas you might begin the book drawn in by its sense of humor, its ending will unhinge you, as if a storm has ripped through you and, like the wind in Rilke’s poem, sucked “the world from your senses.”
“Through the empty branches the sky remains. / It is what you have.”