Fall Back Down When I Die
Little, Brown and Company, 2019. $13.99
Reviewed by Andrew Jones
Early in Joe Wilkins’s first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, he writes, “The moon came up whistle thin. A tooth, a claw, the leanest blade.” This language carries through the rest of the novel, and it is symbolic of the stunning, haunting, and complex story that Wilkins weaves through his characters. While a total of five characters narrate the novel, it is ultimately the shared story of Wendell Newman and Gillian Houlton, whose alternating chapters are split up by the poetic, first-person journal entries written in the past by Wendell’s father, Verl.
The novel begins with the unexpected arrival of Wendell’s nearly-mute nephew, Rowdy Burns. Rowdy’s mother has been incarcerated and as the boy’s only relative, Wendell is a young man thrust into a parental role he is ill-prepared to handle. Meanwhile, we first meet Gillian as she attempts to intervene in the truancy of Tavin Stensvad, a boy in the rural Montana school district where she works. In essence, the story centers on Wendell and Gillian attempting to save young boys at danger of falling into the cycle of distrust, pride, and violence that have harmed generations in the Bull Mountains. In the end, it is the voices of these two boys that complete the story.
The plot is driven by the unease surrounding the first legal wolf hunt in decades—an event a local militia group hopes to exploit and which brings back horrific memories of loss for Gillian. As the novel progresses toward the hunt, readers come to understand the dark connection between Gillian and Wendell, and the inevitability of their intersecting paths.
Wilkins’s combination of vibrant language and characterization of Gillian and Wendell, both wounded and harboring similar fears of losing someone close to them, elevates the novel. Midway through the novel, in her endearing and blunt manner, Gillian reveals her pain as “a dull saw working up through her, slicing tendons, splitting ribs, until the dry air hissed all through her.”
As the climax approaches, Wendell, with his innate capacity for language, takes notice of a monumental change unfolding in front of him: “And the day deepened into itself. Became a thing that scratched and growled and drew breath. A great muscled beast rising on its hind legs, lifting up to its full and terrible height, pulling into its lungs the setting sun, the low wind, the evening songs of birds.” On the surface, Wendell is simple—a young, quiet, impoverished ranch hand going about his daily work. But through his wise narration, we come to understand Wendell as a intricate character wrestling with the strains of ancestry and terrain. In this way, Wilkins forces readers to see beyond the stereotypes of rural America and embrace the characters as sophisticated and dynamic individuals.
And then there is Verl—the syntax and structure of his old journal entries unwinding in time with the gritty action of the present-day events in the story: “I dream a loping she-wolf beside me can you imagine boy the barrel of a wolf’s body kneeling there I thought to take her in my arms she was as perfect as anything I have known.” By the end of the novel, we only wish Wendell could have read them sooner.
Wilkins’s gifts as a seasoned poet and memoirist shine through in his use of figurative language, imagery, sentence fragments, and the way he builds up and tears down the threads of family.
Fall Back Down When I Die is a timely addition to the literature of the West. It is a direct and unflinching representation of the way people, land, politics, and myth tangle with each other at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Andrew Jones teaches writing at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. He serves as an assistant editor and book reviewer for Split Rock Review. His writing has appeared in recent issues of Hobart, The Tishman Review, and Memoir Mixtapes.