"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
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.
“Wilkins delivers a Shakespearean mix of family drama and mortal danger in crisp and beautiful language . . . He renders the effects of violence and trauma on the daily machinations of human lives . . . The world of the novel, rural Montana, is presented with the native realism of someone familiar with the people, language, landscape, and controversies of the ‘way out here’ . . . He captures the social dynamic of communities of few people spread over many swaths of land . . . This novel instills hope. Wilkins has produced a remarkable book filled with characters who, despite their inherent differences over how to exist on the land, remind us of the myriad reasons that every person might be loved.”—Jason Hess, The Oregonian
Of the major pre-publication review venues, Kirkus is famously the toughest, which is why I’m so damn pleased with this *starred* review. They’ve gotten a hold of it, the root of it, and I hope others do too. Here’s the review:
A heart-rending tale of family, love, and violence in which the “failures of the nation, the failures of myth, met the failures of men.”
Poet Wilkins’ (When We Were Birds, 2016, etc.) politically charged first novel, a “sad riddle of a story,” is set primarily in 2009, in rural, poverty-stricken Eastern Montana, with the first legal wolf hunt in decades about to begin. Wilkins crafts a subtle, tightly plotted, and slowly unfolding narrative told through three characters’ points of view: Verl Newman, in first person; and his son, Wendell, and a woman named Gillian Houlton in third person. The story begins a dozen years earlier with Verl, who’s fled to the Big Dry’s cold, deep mountains after shooting and killing a man. He carries his young son Wendell’s notebook and writes to him each night: “I imagine you are hearing all kinds of lies and should hear the truth of it from your old dad who made you.” In the novel’s present day, Wendell, a down-and-out ranch hand who loves to read, takes custody of his incarcerated cousin Lacy’s 7-year-old son, Rowdy, who’s “developmentally delayed.” He grows close to the boy and wants to be the father he never had. Hardworking Gillian is assistant principal and school counselor in the small town of Colter, outside Billings. It was her husband, Kevin, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, whom Verl killed back in the day. She’s doing what she can to help a troubled student whose stepfather leads the right-wing Bull Mountain Resistance and raise her beloved daughter, Maddy, as a single mom. Through these characters, in a prose that can hum gently, then spark like a fire, Wilkins fashions a Western fable which spirals down to a tragic end: “They’ll wear each other down to nothing…right down to sulfur, dust, and bone.”
Following in the literary roots of Montanans Jim Harrison and Rick Bass, Wilkins packs a lot of story and stylistic wallop into this gripping, outstanding novel.
Holy hell. Feeling real good about these good, good words from David James Duncan:
In an electric narrative that busts out in a rare kind of rural poetry when you least expect it, this brilliant novel gives us hard-pressed country people trying to make a life in a beautiful but unforgiving landscape among neighbors and family who, thanks to every political disinformation machine from Fox News to the Koch brothers to the Citizens United judges, have slid us from civility to slander, facts to lies, law to vigilantism, and now answer the Gospel call to compassion with their arsenals. Fall Back Down When I Die places red state zeitgeist and grey wolves squarely in its sights, then shoots both, to my grateful amazement, with profound understanding and compassion. Thank heaven for Joe Wilkins’ voice of mercy calling out in the post-Western night. —David James Duncan