What to do about Seth? The self-destructive punk roils a Kansas household in this sparkling debut.
Lewis Chopik has come home to Wichita to lick his wounds. The young graduate (Columbia, summa cum laude) should be buoyant, but he’s been dumped by his girlfriend, who’s traded up to snag a Rhodes Scholar. And he’s being badgered by his father Virgil, a Columbia professor and part of a formidable clan of academics, to pursue his studies, an unwelcome prospect. All his divorced mother Abby wants is for him to be happy. However, any hope of peace and quiet back home dissolves when his 20-year-old brother Seth appears. He’s been on a downward spiral since age 14, when a morning-glory trip convinced him death was an attractive destination. Since then he’s been tentatively diagnosed as bipolar; briefly married to a stripper in San Francisco; and almost killed by fellow street punks. He fits right in at Abby’s. His indulgent mom has always provided “havens for oddballs,” while busying herself with New -Age projects and a succession of “lifetime companions.” Her latest companion is unhappily sharing her with Bishop, a genial university chemistry teacher who’s cooking up “designer psychedelics” in Abby’s basement; he’s also helping her set up her latest project: storm-chasing with a New -Age twist. There’s never a dull moment in a novel which fires us up with snappy and often very funny dialogue; Seth, deranged but smart (those Chopik genes), takes down anyone in earshot with gleeful malice. The central relationship is that between the two brothers; Lewis loves Seth dearly but is powerless to slow his descent. They will be ejected from a bowling alley and a biker bar; after Seth’s frightening rant in a graveyard, Lewis realizes he must be committed. Then the whole gang takes off after a tornado—for Seth, the perfect solution.
It’s light on plot, and those grim Chopik academics are close to straw men, but so what? Ziolkowski is off to a fine start.