"Joe Wilkins is a writer of great power and heart, and Fall Back Down When I Die is a riveting and timely novel.” – Jess Walter, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins
This summer, we drove 3000 miles across the country, from our temporary home in the North Country of New York to our permanent home in Oregon, in the middle of a pandemic and in the midst of tragedy and protest. The good folks at Orion Magazine asked me to narrate our readying for the trip, as well as the trip itself. You can find the resulting essays here: Crossing a Riven Country, Part 1 and Crossing a Riven Country, Part 2.
Here’s a sneak peek from the second essay:
We left in a light rain, the sky gray and shadowed and close.
We waved goodbye to our rambling, white house, to the park and little downtown, to the Grasse River, and not long after—I’m not sure exactly where, maybe north of Syracuse, our first mixed CD still spinning—we entered, suddenly and completely, that other world: the fast, loud, American universe of the interstate, of movement and hurry and the next stop, the next thing. After a year in the quiet of the North Country, after four months of sheltering at home, it was a shock. But perhaps even more shocking was how quickly—we weren’t even out of New York State—I found myself adjusting to it again, the rushed rhythms, diesel stink, and breathlessness.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Along the verge, I named sumac, maple, spruce. Across these months at home, I have grieved the delights of travel and sport, the sustenance and texture of community, yet this time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully, that the pace of our wider culture, of capitalism, often obliterates what is near and intricate and dear.
I knew this. I grew up way out on the plains of Montana long before cell phones and Wi-Fi, grew up miles from neighbors, the land itself close at hand. But barreling down I-90 just east of the Pennsylvania state line, I had to remind myself.
I just love the literary community that’s been built around the High Plains Book Awards over these last years, and it was a real treat to be a finalist for the 2020 awards alongside friends Pam Houston and Jory Mickelson. It’s even better to find out Pam’s Deep Creek took home the award in creative nonfiction, Jory’s Wilderness//Kingdom landed the poetry prize, and Fall Back Down When I Die is the 2020 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction!
Here’s what 2020 judge Sue Henderson, author of the “achingly magnificent” The Flicker of Old Dreams, had to say about Fall Back Down When I Die:
This is just a magnificent work of art on every level. I read it twice—first, gripped by the story, which is both intimate and sweeping. Then I went right back to the beginning to read it slower and marvel over the rugged poetry.
Wilkins takes the reader deep into the Bull Mountains, where tensions surrounding land rights and hunting regulations turn violent. We meet unforgettable characters—a man who doesn’t feel ready to care for a child, a teacher who doesn’t trust the child is in good hands, and a group of disaffected traditionalists who feel squeezed out of the only life they know. Every character is tangled up in relationships with each other that go back generations, all tied to the memories and the history of this land. The result is a story that surprises with compassion, mercy and sacrifice.
-Sue Henderson, Citation for the 2020 High Plains Book Award
My fourth collection of poetry, Thieve, is here! Big thanks to Chris Howell and everyone at Lynx House Press for bringing this one into the world! Here’s a bit more about it:
Joe Wilkins, winner of the Oregon Book Award and the High Plains Book Award, returns with his fourth book of poetry, Thieve, his most ambitious collection yet.
Thieve is a pointed, political book, though the politics here are local, particular, physically felt. The central sequence―all subtitled “Poem against the Crumbling of the Republic”―was written in direct response to the Wilkins’s own transition from rural poverty in eastern Montana to coastal liberal comfort in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, as well as the presidential election of 2016, which brought to the national consciousness the grave division in American society between urban and rural people. Thieve is Wilkins’s poetic attempt, as someone who knows/has known both worlds, to speak across that chasm.
Thieve also interrogates chasms and barriers between the human and the natural, the present and the past, the parent and the child, between what we earn and what by grace is given.
Joe Wilkins’s poems, several of which are aptly subtitled “Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic,” connect us by fragile threads to a past, a Western past that’s a stand in for our larger American past: the hardscrabble and hardworking, a grace and gratitude for what came before, and for what needs further reckoning, or mercy.
-Nance Van Winckel, author of Our Foreigner and Book of No Ledge
Big news: Fall Back Down When I Die is a finalist for the prestigious First Novel Prize from the Center for fiction. Feeling real good about this! Here’s more from the Center for Fiction:
We are pleased to announce that debut novels by Chia-Chia Lin, Julia Phillips, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Ocean Vuong, Joe Wilkins, Lauren Wilkinson, and De’Shawn Charles Winslow are shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize! The finalists will read from their books and celebrate their achievement with the wider literary community at the First Novel Fête on December 9, 2019, to be held at the Center’s downtown Brooklyn location. The following evening, we will present the award to the winner at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner in New York City. Judges this year are Maaza Mengiste, Claire Messud, Tommy Orange, Emma Straub, and Monique Truong.
The First Novel Prize, launched in 2006, was created as part of our literary nonprofit’s central mission to promote the art of storytelling and help further the careers of new writers. This annual prize carries a $10,000 cash award. Each of the other shortlisted authors will receive a $1,000 award.
“Gorgeous . . . Spellbinding . . . The land itself is almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins’s poetic prose . . . A gripping debut.” —Sarah Gilman, High Country News
“Early in Joe Wilkins’s first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, he writes, “The moon came up whistle thin. A tooth, a claw, the leanest blade.” This language carries through the rest of the novel, and it is symbolic of the stunning, haunting, and complex story that Wilkins weaves.” —Andrew Jones, Split Rock Review
Been a wonderful spring and early summer of readings, and I’m pleased as can be Fall Back Down When I Die is garnering great reviews across the Northwest!
“There isn’t a wrong note in Wilkins’s novel. He manages to pull off the development of characters simultaneous with a growing sense of unease; the storm is becoming visible on the horizon…Wilkins is evolving into one of our best American writers.”―Chris La Tray, The Missoulian
“Nuanced and textured…Fall Back Down When I Die seeks to point a way forward toward community and compassion, toward understanding.”―Rachel Hergett, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
“Powerful…This is a story of realistic, complex characters whose lives intersect on a big canvas — as big as eastern Montana…Joe Wilkins infuses his novel with a sense of personal attachment to both the history and current realities of life and conflict across the vast landscape.” – Mindy Cameron, Lewiston Tribune
Wilkins’s propulsive debut, “Fall Back Down When I Die,” takes place in and around the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana during the Obama presidency, when anti-government paranoia escalated into sporadic crescendos of violence. Mr. Wilkins charts that course with skill and concision […] Though he stresses the persistence of kindness and community, the enduring depiction in “Fall Back Down When I Die” is of a small-scale civil war pitting towns, neighbors, childhood friends and family members against one another. Blood ties to the land result in generation-spanning blood debts.
To read Joe Wilkins’s first novel is to spend time in eastern Montana, to feel the sharp wind cutting across the cedar ridges, through the sagebrush and bunchgrass, kicking up dust that gathers into grit at the corner of your eyes. It is to hear the sweet, languid whistles of the meadowlarks in the fields. It is to feel “the gravel and the ruts and the old cracked tires” beneath you and to see, above you, always, the wide sky, its “whole box of colors” and its “extravagant stars,” that pull of the sublime to lift your gaze from the intractable earth. And it is to know how hard-earned the beauty is. Wilkins achieves a rich evocation of place through seasoned language, tough and tender like the steak the characters are always eating. It is a landscape where they chew on their trouble, pick old bones, are gnawed at by their losses.
Wilkins’s novel feels insightful amid the ongoing debate over public land and legal rights, but it’s also timeless, and it treads the same kind of territory as writers like Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig, digging into quiet stories of people living close to the land.