Joe Wilkins seems like he should be one of those grizzled old writers leaning on a dilapidated split-rail fence somewhere, sniffing the air, wizened eyes staring off into the distance, maybe a long piece of field grass clutched in his teeth. If he isn’t one of those guys, it’s only because he’s still too damn young. He is certainly a leading member of the next generation of storytellers making their home in, and telling stories from, the West. I make that distinction because to call him one of our best “Western” writers is a disservice, it puts him in an unfair box too easily sniffed at by smug literati.
Wilkins is evolving into one of our best American writers, going toe-to-toe with anyone on either coast and anywhere in between, avoiding many of the tropes trampled into dust by those guys I mention in the opening sentence. His new novel, “Fall Back Down When I Die,” his first, will go a long way toward convincing any skeptics.
“Fall Back Down” is a slender volume that features a small but detailed ensemble cast of characters. Set in the vast, unforgiving countryside of rural eastern Montana, it details the challenges of lives lived that rarely succeed beyond hardscrabble. Regional cultures clash, pitting neighbor against neighbor, outsider against local, conservative against “progressive.” Even then, Wilkins doesn’t paint anyone as a villain, or as a saint. His depictions help us come to an understanding of why some people believe the things they do, whether we agree or not. No one is infallible. No one is willfully evil. Wilkins, who grew up in the area north of the Bull Mountains, handles these personalities with the deft touch achievable only by someone who has lived among the people of such remote communities.
Our lead character is Wendell Newman. Wendell is a young ranch hand who doesn’t have much of a future. He carries a dark burden related to past actions of his father, and his mother has just passed away, leaving him a pile of debts. To complicate matters, his cousin has landed in jail, and her son, 7-year-old Rowdy Burns, is given over to Wendell’s care. The boy doesn’t speak and has other trauma-based disorders, but Wendell finds a way to connect with the boy. For all the mastery Wilkins brings to his depictions of the landscape of the Bull Mountains and their surrounding areas, and the people who live there, it is the delicacy and grace Wilkins brings to Wendell and Rowdy’s relationship that I found most compelling.
The story plays out against the backdrop of a looming legal wolf hunt, the first in 30 years, and lines are drawn on both sides of the issue. Connections among the characters who weave in and out of the story are made, and some are tragic. Other characters suffer for the rhetoric they engage in, with results neither desired nor anticipated. “Fall Back Down When I Die” is a powerful read.
Wilkins is my favorite kind of writer. He hasn’t painted himself into a corner as a certain “type” of writer, because he’s worked in multiple disciplines. He has published widely across various lit magazines and anthologies. He is an award-winning poet with three collections under his name, most recently 2016’s “When We Were Birds.” His 2012 book, “The Mountain and the Fathers,” is a memoir about growing up in “The Big Dry,” which is the very locale “Fall Back Down” plays out in.
There isn't a wrong note in Wilkins's novel. He manages to pull off the development of characters simultaneous with a growing sense of unease; the storm is becoming visible on the horizon and we know something really bad is going to happen. We just don't know what, or to whom, because everyone here is at risk. It feels like everything Wilkins has done so well leading up to this novel — poetry, essays, short fiction — have all come together in service to this brilliant piece of writing.