“Wichita” by Thad Ziolkowski (Europa Editions, 253 pages, $16 paper)
This unappealing novel steadies its gaze on a wild group of imaginary Wichitans who couldn’t possibly exist, even in the overheated and self-regarding observations of an author living in the ivory tower of a writing program.
The improbable protagonist is named Lewis Chopik; he returns to his erstwhile hometown on the prairie to recuperate from a broken heart administered by one Victoria, an Emily Dickinson scholar, though why a grown adult male pursuing graduate studies in Virgil would need to flee home after a breakup isn’t made exactly clear.
At home Lewis encounters his Aquarian mother, Abby, who pursues multilevel marketing schemes directed at the “Racket Club Women” of Wichita, while also devising and marketing online a tornado-chasing business. Abby is polyamorous (the author’s word), though the reader might find it odd that two lovers are living at her home, one a pious stink-pot named Donald, the other a hallucinogenic chemist named Bishop, who tents out in the backyard.
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Also at home is Lewis’ brother Seth, an all-around nincompoop who does every drug known to man and sports heliocentric tattoos. Seth has spent time at the Topeka State Hospital and is well-known to the cops for his satiric sporting activities like tearing down neighborhood American flags.
Other youthful sports inhabit the house on a catch-as-catch-can basis, including failed satirical spoofs and nitwits like Butch, Tina and Cody, who taken together don’t amount to a can of hairspray as people.
Perhaps Ziolkowski was attempting some kind of satire, either of the drug culture or the New Age. Who knows? He certainly fails to render either a sense of place (Lewis lands at Wichita’s airport, in the middle of nowhere) or a nuanced handling of character. People smart off in this novel and smarting off is rarely interesting.
Needless to say, the novel culminates in a tornado. Unfortunately, only one of the main characters is killed in this fiasco.