"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
Been a long run of rainy, cold days here in Oregon. Just now, though, after a brief, sleety snow on the fading crocuses and the daffodils yet waving their yellow flags, the sky went breakaway blue. A western sky, deep and shot through with high-running clouds.
Made the jump to Substack, and you can read the rest of my latest newsletter here.
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
…and you think it’s good. You do. And even after your agent has said it’s good, and after a great publishing house has grabbed it, and your amazing editor at said publishing house works with you on it and says now it’s ready–well, you still think it’s good, but, the thing is, you’re not quite sure. At least until the amazing Pam Houston says so.
Oh, wow. Reveling in these words:
“With passion matched only by his compassion, Joe Wilkins has crafted a novel that perfectly explicates the clash between the cowboys and ranchers of the old west and the environmentalists and seekers of the new. No polemic, Fall Back Down When I Die is populated by vibrant characters drawn with fairness and deep heart, boys and men, girls and women who will get under your skin and stay there, and vivid descriptions of the Montana landscape that are spot on and swoon-worthy. Finally, this is book about America, its violence, its traumas, its entitlements and its stultifying rage.” -Pam Houston, best-selling author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and Deep Creek
“A masterpiece. Lean and authentic, this twenty-first century western captures what so many rural Americans on the margins are feeling; righteous anger and bitter disconnection, powerlessness and rugged pride. And yet, Wilkins has endowed his unforgettable cast of characters with humanity, gentleness, grace, and hard-won poetry. In prose as rugged and beautiful as the story’s Montana setting, Joe Wilkins has written one of the better novels I’ve read in years. An absolutely stunning book in every way.” – Nickolas Butler, internationally best-selling author of Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men.