"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.
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.
Crazy late with this (I’m just catching up), but I have a short essay in the September/October 2014 issue of Orion. As with every issue of Orion, this one is required reading; I mean, new work by Terry Tempest Williams, Luis Alberto Urrea, Brian Doyle, and Kathleen Dean Moore, as well as reviews, poems, and so much more–if you aren’t subscribed to Orion, well, you’re missing out!
My poem “Drought” appears in the latest issue of Orion. Lots of wonderful stuff in this issue (as always–Orion’s plain great!), including a stunning/scary essay on the breast cancer industrial complex by Jennifer Lunden and a dreamy meditation on borders, dying rivers, and ghosts by Luis Alberto Urrea.
As part of Scott Temple’s Wyld-Er-Ness documentary series, Pam Houston and I sat down on a snowy spring day in Boston and talked writing and nature. You can find the newly released video at Orion Magazine’s blog.
In the book’s prologue, you write, “In story we learn to live like human beings in the dark houses of our bodies.” I love that line—it’s the kind of sentence I’m tempted to write down, tear from my notebook, and pin on the wall. Can you say a bit about the power of story in your life?
My grandfather was a wonderful teller of tales. After Sunday dinner we’d all sit in the front room and read and talk until late. And no matter the topic at hand, my grandfather had a story for it, a story that deepened or turned or somehow complicated the conversation. There were seldom any morals, seldom any clear arguments or ideas. Yet the stories mattered; they were full of things to think on, to wonder at and hold close. And I did. I carried and still carry my grandfather’s stories.