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.
Geez. This review. Kind, wise, a poem in its own right. Thanks, Melissa Mylchreest.
Joe Wilkins’ words unspool down the page like the highway runs off forever into the empty spaces of Montana’s Big Dry, the eastern reaches of the state where he was born and raised. Populated by chokecherry, dry riverbeds, overgrown roadside ditches, lean cattle and leaner people, his books—poetry, nonfiction and fiction—all speak of a world that is scarred, broken, damaged and dusty, but never irredeemable and never without beauty.
The Mountain and the Fathers has just garnered reviews in The Briar Cliff Review, The Great Falls Tribune, and Montana Quarterly! The reviews aren’t available online, but here are some quotes:
Page after page and sentence after sentence, this is one of the best-written and most readable books to come across this reader’s desk, worthy of keeping company with such excellent nonfiction such as A River Runs Through It, Blue Highways, and Tom Montag’s Curlew. -Phil Hey, The Briar Cliff Review
Words are [Wilkins’] escape from a dry, treeless, stony world and the entryway into other worlds. They’re the paving stones to self-knowledge. Later he finds respite in stories—true or not, some half-remembered. “It is when we recognize how stories fail us and how stories save us. It is when we have heard them both and tell, in the moment of out greatest need, the story that will save us.” This book is one of those stories. -Carol Ann Clark, The Great Falls Tribune
Wilkins does a wonderful job of telling the world of daily life—the hippie math teacher who’s effective in part because he throws boys against walls until they learn, strawberry ice cream and fishing, snakes and prairie fires and cheap vodka—but he hits a crescendo near the end, when he leaves the toughness behind and lets his mother remember reality, warm and joyous and not elegiac at all, from the first moments of life with her husband to the last, just a few years later: “Dancing, she was saying, every night that week. He came in every night that week and took me dancing…Two-dollar champagne, she said. We drank it out of soda bottles and drove all through the night…Anyway, I loved him. I love him.” -Jamie Harrison, Montana Quarterly