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Book Review: Fall Back Down When I Die - Joe Wilkins

Like most books I actually end up reading, this one caught me with its title and cover. (Fellow authors, don't let sentimentality fool you: the most critical factors in a book's success are almost always the title and the cover, infuriating as that fact may be. Just look to your own book-buying habits if you don't believe me. You probably pick 'em based on titles and covers, too. Most of us do. It's human nature.)

I know exactly where I was when I found this book, too: inside the coffee and gift shop Atticus in Spokane, Washington, early in the month of December. I'd been invited to Spokane in order to give a presentation to the Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages Book Club about my novel One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow. (If you're curious, you can watch the interview here, and be amazed and/or horrified at how tall and imposing and how very Scandinavian in stature I am.) I had spent most of the day writing back in the coffee bar at Atticus--which has great coffee and even better ginger cookies, by the way, and a barista who sang wonderfully the whole time she was working--and when I got sick of working, I poked around the gift area for a while, looking for some Yule presents to bring home to my homies and also a good book to read, since I had a long wait at the train station and then a 2 am - 6 am train ride ahead of me to get back home.

Atticus had a little shelf just for local authors, so of course I perused it, but only one title jumped out and grabbed me: Fall Back Down When I Die. With a name like that, it had to be literary fiction, which meant it was right up my alley. I pulled it off the shelf and looked at the cover: vintage images of wolves and guns. I was already sold, not even knowing what the book was about--such is the power of title and cover--but when I read the description, I knew I'd found a book I was sure to love.

Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand in Montana, has recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan, as his father met a violent end more than a decade earlier. His bank account holds less than a hundred dollars, and he owes back taxes on what remains of the land his parents owned, as well as money for the surgeries that failed to save his mother's life.
Into this situation comes seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, the illegitimate son of Wendell's cousin, who is incarcerated after falling prey to addiction. Traumatized, Rowdy is mute and damaged. Caring for him will be a test of Wendell's will and resolve, and yet he comes to love the boy more than he ever thought possible. That love will be stretched to the breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years, when a murder results in a manhunt, and Wendell finds himself on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, hoping both to protect Rowdy and to avoid the same violent fate that claimed his father.

All right; sounded good. I grew up in the Rocky Mountain West, so the setting appealed to me. I'm not a big fan of "Wayward child and adult in tricky situation form unexpected bond" stories--kids just aren't really my jam, to be honest--but I was willing to give the book a try anyway because all those other elements had snagged me. But from the moment I actually started reading, I understood that this book was more than merely "good." It was (and is) truly great. A great work of literature in every sense: stirring, affecting, poignant; handling with nuance a very fraught, difficult subject that nevertheless must be handled and confronted head-on. This book is about so much more than an adult and a child forging an unlikely bond--though the relationship between Wendell and Rowdy is central to the plot and is important (and much more moving than I expected it to be.)

Joe Wilkins' debut novel is really about the clash between Red and Blue America. It's about the places in the American landscape where liberal and conservative ideals smash into one another head-on and the particular kinds of tensions that unique conflict creates. It's a tension I am familiar with, having grown up in that sort of place; I can confirm that Wilkins represents the culture of the Rockies with heart-rending accuracy; he is clearly a person who also knows the place and its problems intimately. Set sometime during the Obama administration, this book is about a whole and complete picture of poverty and despair in the Western states--how poverty traps entire generations and shackles them to place; how devastating drug usage creeps in to fill voids that should be filled by the things a broken government fails to provide: dignity, education, healthcare, opportunity. It's about how oppressed populations in rural America obstinately continue to support politicians and policies who actively harm them, and how the liberal factions that are trying to do some good for those same populations fail to meet them where they're at, fail to understand them because rural Western white people have, for generations, lived on an entirely different planet from those of us who've had the benefit of some influence from the "coastal elites." Through the very human agonies and struggles of two central characters--Wendell, a young man doing his best in a very bad situation, and Gillian, a teacher and social worker still aching over the murder of her BLM-ranger husband more than a decade before--the impossible clash of conservative and liberal ideologies plays out with great sensitivity and understanding. Through the device of an old journal, the voice of Wendell's dead father, Verl, also threads through the narrative, providing insight into Wendell's current situation and the powder keg the Bull Mountain region has become in the years since Gillian's husband was killed.

The character work is nothing short of exquisite. Every single character in this book, no matter how minor, is shown with great dimension and tenderness, with touching and admirable compassion. Wilkins truly understands the root of this conflict. He truly understands the perspectives of people on both sides; he knows that there are no easy answers, that both sides are wounded and in great pain, and that healing will only come at the cost of yet more pain for everyone. No character, not even Verl, is a stock "bad guy", being a dick just for the sake of it. Everyone who does wrong does wrong because wrongs were done to him. The generations-long path of suffering is apparent, and there is clear compassion and rationality on every page. This is one of the finest examples of character work I've ever read. Wilkins' understanding of human nature and human need is so great that I could wish for him to be appointed to some kind of humanitarian, policy-making office in a new administration, though I suspect that would be a great curse on the guy.

The prose is pitch-perfect. I do love lush, "big" prose when it's done well (no surprise to anybody who enjoys my own books, which are, uh, DENSE WITH WORDS to say the least. No surprise to anybody who hates my books, either.) But I also have a great appreciation for a sparer style, which Wilkins delivers. It's mostly the voices of his characters, so beautifully established and faithfully adhered to, which make his tight, spartan prose read as impossibly poetic. Once you understand Wendell, Gillian, and Verl as people, it makes the scenery and emotions described through each character's distinct perspective that much more powerful and vivid.

A couple of my favorite passages. In Wendell's voice:

Wendell rocked and rocked, and Rowdy fell into a deep, thrashing sleep, his small body jerking through dreams. Wendell found himself reciting in his head the two lines from Macbeth that he remembered best. How goes the night, boy? Banquo inquires of his son Fleance, who is at the watch. And Fleance responds, The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
How goes the night, boy? The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
How goes the night, boy? The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
How goes the night, boy? The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
The way those two lines clicked and clacked, the way the father asks not after the son but after the night, and the son offers exactly that, the night--it all crushed down on his heart so wonderfully. Nearly a decade and a half had passed since Mr. Whearty had staged the play with them, and in that time Wendell had often chanted those lines to himself as he fixed the fence or drove the combine or rode for strays. It was Freddie Benson who'd played Feance, and in both shows he'd mumbled and tripped over those words--the moon is down; I have not heard the clock--and Wendell had been angry. Still was, in a way. After the show, on the drive home, he had complained to his mother about Freddie. He had tried to explain how much those lines mattered to him, and though she listened, she just smoothed her hand over his head, told him not to worry, that he'd been such a good, scary ghost.

In Verl's voice:

Not even that much below freezing. And still so cold. Goddamn. How I would like a fire. I cannot have a fire. They are after me. Here is what I do. I dig down as deep as I can which is not too deep for soon there are roots and rocks but no matter I burrow in there like an old bear and heap sand and leaves and needles over me. It helps. Some. The rocks are hard beneath me and give me back some portion of my heat. I only wish against the wind. The trees in this dry country are scrawny as mutt dogs and the night wind scrapes along the top of me like a dull knife down to my bones.
I am sorry to go on like this. I should not complain. It is my own goddamn doing. I should have brung more clothes. More food. Should not have shot that deer. Should not have done many things.
I took this wolf tooth like it mattered.
I think now we would get along. The wolf and me. It would be nice to hear her howl at a fat moon when I too am holed up beneath the moon.
My belly howling
Her tooth at my throat. The length of her claws.

I just can't get over what a beauty and a wonder this book is. How sensitively it's written, with such care and love and knowing. It was the first book I finished in 2020 and so far I haven't found one to top it, though I've enjoyed quite a few tremendously. I have a feeling that Fall Back Down When I Die will remain one of my favorite novels for the rest of my life, and Joe Wilkins one of my favorite writers. It will certainly have a permanent place on my bookshelf.

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