Fall Back Down When I Die


By Joe Wilkins

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$13.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 12, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

For readers of My Absolute Darling and Fourth of July Creek, a “riveting and timely” Montana story about the unbreakable bond between a young man and the abandoned boy put in his care (Jess Walter), as old grievances of land and blood are visited upon them.

Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand in Montana, has recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan. 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.

An unexpected deliverance arrives in the form of seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, the mute and traumatized son of Wendell’s incarcerated cousin. When Rowdy is put under his care, what begins as an ordeal for Wendell turns into a powerful bond, as he comes to love the boy more than he ever thought possible. That bond will be stretched to the breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years, when a murder ignites a desperate chase.

Caught on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, Wendell is determined both to protect Rowdy and to avoid the same violent fate that claimed his own father. A gripping story set in a fractured and misunderstood community, Fall Back Down When I Die is a haunting and unforgettable tale of sacrificial love.

Finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize


If I am native to anything,
I am native to this.

—Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow


Not out in all this country. Not even with your ATVs and radios and such as that. Not even. What I'm saying. You won't find me. Not out in all this country. I can run and hide and run and even if it would be only a moment at six hundred yards and you would have to put a bullet in my back these mountains here are mine you fuckers you fuckers and you cowards I am telling you for fuck all and ever these Bull Mountains are mine.


A​S THE NEIGHBOR GIRL'S SUV DISAPPEARED DOWN THE ROAD, WENDELL watched the tire-kicked dust bloom and sift through shades of gold, ocher, and high in the evening sky a pearling blue. Harvest light, late-August light—thin, slanted, granular. At his back the mountains already bruised and dark.

Wendell stepped back into the trailer and the screen door banged shut behind him. He considered the boy, sitting on the front-room floor, scribbling in a spiral notebook, pencil marks so dark and hard as to sheen to silver. Of a sudden the boy closed his notebook, jammed his pencil into the whorled spine. He looked right at Wendell, the dark of his eyes the biggest thing about him.

—Bet you're hungry, Wendell said. Let's get us something to eat.

The last weeks of harvest hadn't seen him home much, and though he preferred beef stew or chili all he found in the cupboard were cans of chicken noodle. Wendell realized he'd have to do more regular shopping now, with the boy around.

—Looks like it's chicken or chicken, bud.

Wendell pulled a can off the shelf and sliced into it with the opener, then spooned the clotted mess into bowls and set the bowls in the microwave and punched the buttons. The light was broken, but he could hear it whir, knew it was heating. The boy stood and waited, itching the side of his face, then sat at the small round table in the trailer's kitchen and kicked his thin legs. Seven years old, maybe fifty pounds soaking wet.

The social worker from Billings, a frumpy, jowled woman, had brought the boy out yesterday. Said they'd had him at the hospital for a few days, just to make sure, and had thought to take him to a group home but then found out there was an uncle south of Delphia. Took them a while to track him down, but, well, here they were, she said, stepping to the side, motioning toward the boy. Here was his nephew, this scrawny kid with a plastic grocery sack of clothes and a spiral notebook. Wendell was just back from hours on the combine. He held up his hands, explained he wasn't an uncle to the boy but a cousin. Lacy, the boy's mother, had come to live with Wendell and his mom, Maureen, because Lacy's father had left to work a fishing boat in Alaska and her mother, Maureen's sister, had died in a car accident years before that. When her father's letters quit coming, Lacy had simply hung a curtain across the room that she and Wendell shared and stayed with them through most of high school. Yes, Lacy had been like an older sister to him—they were a year apart—but she was really only a cousin. He wanted to make sure that was clear.

The woman considered this, regarded the Keystone Light cans scattered across the countertop, then asked about his mother. He could tell she was hoping she wouldn't have to leave the boy in a trailer way out in the Bull Mountains with a man not much more than a boy himself. But Wendell shook his head, told the social worker his mother had died about a year ago. The woman stared at his work boots, his sleeveless T-shirt covered in grease stains and chaff, the burnt umber of his sun-blasted arms and neck and face, the stark white line on his forehead where he pulled his ball cap low. It seemed to Wendell she studied him for hours, days, a reckoning thorough and strict and piling up like all the rest. He didn't need a boy to look after, that was for sure, but Wendell still wanted this woman up from Billings to see him and think something good, think he might be able to do whatever it was that needed to be done. And so he felt strangely relieved when she finally sighed and said she was sorry to hear about his mother, then went ahead and pulled a file folder out of her satchel and told him about the boy, how he was "developmentally delayed," "variously involved," and, the kicker, how he hadn't said so much as a word since they'd found him. As far as they could figure, the boy had been locked in that apartment on the south side of Billings all alone for more than a week.

The microwave whirred. The boy brought both hands to his face, began tapping his fingers across the stretched skin of his cheeks, making a hollow drumming sound. He was somehow cockeyed, this boy, his shoulders kinked to the right, his neck skinny and long and stretched to the left, ears delicate and wide as monarch wings.

The boy drummed at his cheeks, stared at the table, shivered. Kept drumming.

—Me too, bud. I'm hungry too.

At the ding Wendell popped open the microwave door, grabbed the bowls, and burned his fingers. He cursed, glanced at the boy—still tapping away—and apologized. Then crumpled up a couple of paper towels and ferried the bowls to the table that way.

Wendell got two spoons and filled two glasses of water and stepped back, surveyed the table.

—This sure don't look like much.

He rooted through his cupboards again, found a package of saltines and paired it with a stick of margarine from the fridge. Then sat down and scooted his chair up. Smiled at himself for his quick thinking.

—Butter crackers, bud. Butter crackers'll stick to your ribs.

The boy stared at him, then at the crackers. Wendell took a cracker, put a thick pat of cold margarine on it, and handed it to the boy.

Until his mother had gone on that health kick, they used to get butter crackers with about every meal. There'd be meat, butter crackers, potatoes of some sort, a plate of pickles, and, for dessert, peaches or pears in heavy syrup. That was the sad, good time when it was just the two of them—after his old man had vanished, before Lacy.

The boy shoved the cracker into his mouth, worked it around in there a moment, then reached for another. Wendell grinned at him.

They ate for a time. The scrape of spoons, the soft shatter of crackers. After he finished, the boy just sat there, staring at his bowl. Wendell opened another can and poured half into the boy's bowl and nuked it and set the bowl in front of him. The boy ate that one, too, along with another plateful of butter crackers. Then he leaned back in his chair, eyes not quite so wide, his shoulders and jaw seeming to relax.

The boy was sleepy, Wendell thought. Or full. Or, hell, he didn't know. He didn't know what he was doing.

Before she left, Jackie, the neighbor girl who'd sat with the boy all day, had said she couldn't come by tomorrow. Said she had to drive into town, to the library at the school, where there was internet, so she could register for fall classes. She was starting at the private college over in Billings the next week. Wendell hadn't realized. He still thought of Jackie Maxwell as the new kid, the one whose parents had moved from Colorado and bought the Shellhammer place after Art Jr. lost it to the bank and had begun raising goats, of all things—a line of organic goat meat that took off when a chain of fancy grocery stores in California started buying it all up months in advance. There was a year, before he saved up and bought his Chevy LUV, that he and Jackie had ridden the same bus, the south bus. South-bus kids, north-bus kids, east-bus kids, west-bus kids. And town kids were a different bunch altogether. Jackie was a skinny kid with round glasses and two long braids, but one day she had worn her hair down instead, and on a dare Wendell had waited until the bus driver wasn't looking and then flicked a wad of bubble gum from way in the back and hit Jackie square in the head. Her brown hair had gotten all mushed up in the pink gum, and the whole bus had just laughed and laughed. Now here she was, grown up and nice-looking and telling him she was registering for college classes while he was living in his mother's trailer, bringing in someone else's wheat. He hoped Jackie didn't remember that about the gum. He didn't know who he'd get to sit with the boy tomorrow.

—How about some TV, bud?

He flipped it on for the boy and set himself to cleaning up the kitchen. Wiping down the table, Wendell thought he heard the boy hum or maybe laugh, but when he looked up, the boy, who hadn't been sitting there more than five minutes, had fallen asleep on the floor. Jesus. He finished with the dishes and pulled a can of Keystone Light from the fridge and took a drink. The light of the television played across the boy's small body. Wendell's heart knocked about in his chest.

Two shows later, Wendell knelt on the floor and picked the boy up in his arms. Just a bundle of skin and sticks, he thought as he laid the boy in his mother's bed, with its cream comforter and lace pillows. He hadn't been in her room much since she'd died and had sort of forgotten about her dresser, which had a big lead-glass mirror atop it. When he was a boy that mirror had scared him something awful, the stretched angle he saw himself at after he slipped into bed between his sleeping parents early in the morning. He rooted in the closet and found a sheet and draped it over the mirror.

The boy clenched and the whole of him went hard and rigid, his skinny arms thrown above his head, his eyes snapping open—but then, just as quickly, he relaxed and his eyes fluttered closed again. The social worker had mentioned fits, had shown Wendell what to do. Sound asleep like this, though, it didn't seem possible. Sound asleep and small and so out of place here in this woman's room. Wendell thought maybe he should get some sheets with cars on them or basketballs or something, hang a few posters on the wall. He wasn't sure. He opened a window against the heat, and the room filled with night sounds: crickets, mosquitoes, wind in the dry grass and pines, the far yips and calls of coyotes. He looked at the boy once more, his head turned to the left, knees pulled nearly up to his chin now. He's the smallest thing around, Wendell thought. The tiniest little thing for miles.

Wendell went for another beer, sat at the kitchen table, and drank it down. The boy was asleep, which was as it should be, and the night was all about, and he was tired from the day's work, the long muscles in his shoulders sizzling, shifting against the bones. He rubbed at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, reds and purples swirling behind his lids, and took stock of his situation: He was twenty-four years old. He owned the trailer and the pickup outright but owed back taxes on what land was left—the old farmhouses, the shop, most of a section to the west—and had overdue payments on two of his mother's last surgeries, surgeries that hadn't done any good anyway. Glen Hougen, his boss, had let him fill his truck up the other day, so he had most of a tank of gas. Maybe a bit less than a hundred dollars in the bank, a few bills in his wallet. Considering he didn't know what he'd do with the boy tomorrow, didn't know whether he could afford to hire a permanent babysitter, this was about as much as he could make sense of, this and the night.

It was just him now, he thought, the beer can insubstantial in his hand. Him and his girl cousin's bastard kid. They were the last Newmans left in these mountains.


The next day he brought the boy with him to the field, asked Glen if, considering the circumstances, there not being but the one seat in the combine, he could drive the grain truck for the day, so the boy could ride along.

Glen spit, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

—Christ, Wendell. I know you've had a rough shake lately. But this ain't ideal.

—I know.

—Tell you what, you give Lanter a quick-and-dirty on how to run the combine. Take him around the field one time while I watch the little shooter. If Lanter can get his mind around it, you can drive the truck.

—I appreciate it.

—You goddamn better. I ain't got but one full-time hand, Wendell, and I need you doing the jobs that matter most. Even if Lanter gets it, he'll be slow. Won't get near as much done today.

Wendell helped the boy out of the LUV, and the kid stood there in the stubble at the field's edge, blinking in the blue-yonder light.

Glen came right up to him and leaned down.

—You ain't a bad-looking little fella. Got yourself some nice black hair.

At this, Glen pulled off his ball cap and rubbed his own slick, bald head.

—I'm downright jealous. What say we shake?

The boy pulled away, and when Glen reached out and took hold of his hand, he began to tremble and a breathy wail rose from his throat.

Embarrassed, Wendell set his hand on the boy's shoulder.

—Hey, it's okay, bud.

But the boy broke into a saw-blade scream that rose and broke again. Wendell knelt and tried to shush the boy, took him by his arms. But the boy only got louder. He jerked, kicked, shrieked in Wendell's face.

Now Glen took Wendell by the shoulder.

—Hey, loosen up that grip. That's right, okay, go get him a drink out of your canteen or something.

Dust in Wendell's eyes, the building heat of the day at his throat. He did as he was told and hefted the boy, who flailed and yowled, banging the back of his head into Wendell's shoulder and chest, and hurried across the field toward the grain truck. The boy's wails ripped through him. The cut stalks snapped beneath his boots. Wendell stumbled and righted himself and whispered to the boy that he was his good uncle and would do his honest best to take care of him, his honest best. And by the time they got to the truck the boy had quieted some, though he continued to shiver and jerk.

With the boy in one arm, Wendell hauled open the heavy, creaking door of the grain truck and set the boy up on the high bench seat, got him his notebook and pencil, the canteen. The boy's breath began to smooth and slow, and he put his fingers to his face and played the sides of his cheeks. Wendell leaned into the truck and showed him the old AM radio, how you could turn the silver knob and swing the dial up and back through the numbers. The boy watched a moment, his hands still at his face. Then reached out to take the knob.

Wendell fumbled his can of Copenhagen from his back pocket and pinched off a chew, spit, wiped at his forehead. Walked back across the field.

Glen shook his head.

—Goddamn. You don't even know what you're in for, son. Who'd you say the boy's daddy was?

—Lacy never did let on. His last name is Burns, though.

—And you never knew Lacy to run with a Burns?

—There's a lot I don't know, I guess.

Glen shook his head again and sucked at his teeth.

—That girl was buck wild from day one. No disrespect. But there was nothing your mama could've done. You start messing around with that methamphetamine—well, you're up shit creek. That boy ain't quite right, is he. Poor kid's gonna have it all kinds of rough. What's his first name?


—Rowdy Burns?




His junior year was the year Delphia was finally going to make State again. Everyone said so. Wendell could shoot the lights out, Daniel McCleary was quick and smart with the ball, and the Korenko boy, despite his general lunkheadedness—he'd been held back two grades and was twenty years old—was six and a half feet tall.

The championship game at the divisional tournament saw two of the three news stations in Billings send reporters. Wendell scored thirty-three points and with just over a second left had a chance to tie the game, send it into overtime, with a one-and-one from the free-throw line. He made the front end, then clanked the second. That night, after the oblivion of the ride home on the team bus and the many dark turnings of the gravel road back to the trailer, Lacy came into his room and crawled into bed with him. Spooned herself up against him. Small as she was, she took him in her arms and held him. The summer before, he and Lacy had played a thousand dusty, furious games of one-on-one at the hoop nailed to the barn wall. She was quick and sharp-elbowed. She'd pushed him hard and could be downright mean about it. All that long ride home, he'd thought of her, of what she might say. But she hadn't said a thing. Just held him. He cried, really cried, and then like a tumbling stone in a river fell into a black, thrashing sleep.

He dreamed, as he often did, of wolves, their great forepaws soft and sure on the earth, and later woke to find Lacy standing over him, a rifle in her hands.

—Let's go.


She turned toward the door.

—Just get the fuck up, she said.

Wendell followed her into the mountains. Black, high-running clouds, the light of the late-winter moon watery and blue. Grass and sticks and the night's freeze sharp beneath their bootfalls, scratch of pine bark, grit of rocks. The chatter of coyotes. A great horned owl's whoo, whoo, whoo-whoo. Then all was still, silent. And as the howl rang and rose around them, Lacy stopped, took her bearings, and followed that fading bell of sound. The slim, shifting, indomitable bit of darkness that she was disappeared into the fuller darkness. And he followed.

They walked all night. Dawn found them near Hawk Creek, where before hiking back they slept a cold hour huddled beneath a pine.

They never saw the wolf.


Stopping for Rowdy to piss, running back to the trailer because he'd forgotten to pack butter crackers, slowing to comfort the boy when something set him off—it all had Wendell back to the field slow, the combines full and waiting and Glen shaking his big bald head, spitting in the dust. Otherwise it was a good day. Wendell liked how the boy's presence gave him an excuse to talk or gripe or act goofy. And for the most part Rowdy seemed to do fine. He liked to spin the radio knob. He liked the ups and downs of the dirt roads, the bumps and turns and washboards. Wendell gunned the engine now and again just to see his eyes go wide.

Once, midafternoon, the boy got some chaff or something stuck in his throat and couldn't seem to stop coughing. He got redder and redder, and Wendell pulled over and clapped him on the back and tried to get him to drink some water, and Rowdy finally did get a little water down and was okay then, though in the dusty, angled light Wendell felt wrung out.

Late in the evening, the sun bleeding through the pines, the broken land about going shadowed and blue, Wendell turned to find the boy sitting ramrod straight on the bench seat, like he'd been most of the day, scrawny shoulders cockeyed, eyes wide as skipping rocks. Wendell figured Glen would most likely work them until midnight to try to catch up, and remembering the tall bedtime tales his old man used to spin for him, he thought he might tell a story to help the boy relax, maybe even curl up and close his eyes.

—What say I tell a story? What would you say to that?

The boy turned and blinked, waited.

—All right, then. Let me get a dip here first.

Wendell reached for the can of Copenhagen he'd left on the dash, thumped it once, and set it on his thigh. Left hand on the wheel, he carefully worked the lid off with his right and set it too on his thigh and pinched up a chew. Just as he got the tobacco situated in his lip, the boy reached over for the tin and the lid and clicked the two together and handed the can back to Wendell. Wendell smiled, winked at the boy.

—I don't care what anyone says, Rowdy Burns, you're a gentleman.

Wendell told the boy about the long days of tilling and leveling and planting in the spring, the hope of rain hooked to the inside of you like a weight on your heart, and how when the rain comes, hope pulls the other way, lifting the heart like the rain does the green shoots, which poke up and lengthen and before you know it dry to gold and deeper gold. He told the boy about the tremendous red machine of the combine, the spinning forks that feed the wheat to the cutter bar, the triangle blades that snip the wheat, the thresher that does the sorting—sending chaff spinning out behind the combine onto the stubbled field and collecting hard red durum in the hopper—until the combine makes for the edge of the field, the auger bar straightens out, and the wheat spills into the empty bed of the grain truck.

—And here we are, bud, driving these dirt roads back and forth, carrying the wheat to the silos, where we auger it up into the silos, and then it waits in the silos to be sold, and then it's sold. And then, well, it's sold.

Wendell glanced at the boy, who was listening hard, watching him like a pilgrim watches the sky for a sign. Before them the road unspooled and narrowed off into the far reaches of the gathering night, starlight sliding down through road dust. In the silence Rowdy blinked and shivered, leaned into the bench seat, relaxing his shoulders ever so slightly. Wendell went on. He told about what came next and easiest to him, which was high-school basketball, how everyone in a fifty-mile radius showed up for home games, with more than half that traveling to away games and tournaments. He told about how goddamn much he missed playing basketball, coming hard and sharp off Toby Korenko's pick—the squeak of his sneakers, the slick of sweat as shoulder bumped shoulder—and catching the pass from Daniel McCleary and squaring and rising and at the apex of his leap levering the ball up and out and watching, as he dropped back to the hardwood, the ball snap through the net. How the crowd rose up then and hooted and hollered and stomped on the old wood and steel bleachers, and how the gym, a tight cinder-block square with the out-of-bounds lines right against the walls, fairly shook with that unbridled sound.

Basketball had set things right for him, he told the boy. With his father gone and most of their land sold or leased, he'd been the odd one out on the playground. Here, in this far place, a frontier that was all men and territory, he was the one without, lacking both, and the rules concerning such things were hard and fixed and applied with full and violent force to everyone—but Wendell couldn't find the words to explain this except to say again that basketball had saved him. He closed his eyes for a moment, felt the gravel and the ruts and the old cracked tires and the wheezing metal frame, the secret worries of the stars. He opened his eyes. After they won the district tournament his junior year, he told Rowdy, Glen had bought the whole team dinner at Jake's, the best steak house in Billings. Wendell had scored twenty-six points and grabbed eleven rebounds, and Glen had come right up to him special and said he couldn't order anything but prime rib, the most expensive thing on the menu. That steak, Wendell told the boy, was as big as the plate.

The sweet, bracing burn of tobacco was in his throat. The boy had curled himself into the passenger-side door, eyelids drifting, falling shut. The two of them were close enough to touch but they were not touching. They were alone in the old rattletrap grain truck, traveling through the dark, one small, true, utterly unseen thing in a universe of such things.

Now Wendell told this sleeping, shirttail relative of his something he'd never told anyone, that even though he didn't take much but basketball seriously in high school, he loved nothing more than when Mrs. Jorgeson, the English teacher, ancient, stern, an angry-looking mole on the side of her nose, would assign a new book. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Outsiders, Cannery Row—he would come home and say barely two words to his mother or Lacy before disappearing into his room and from there into the strange, particular worlds of those pages, places and times where the rules were sometimes the same and sometimes different, and the place he knew so well, Musselshell County, with its residents numbering fewer than five thousand, was suddenly, frighteningly one of many. It confused and thrilled him—that the world was mutable, variegated. He told the sleeping boy that even though you were supposed to turn the books back in after the quiz and the report, he started keeping them. Mrs. Jorgeson must have known, but she never told him to stay after so she could ask him about it, and even if he didn't much have the time to read anymore, those books were still stacked on his bed stand. Lacy had teased him about getting his nose stuck in those books some, and his mother had thinned her eyes at him not turning the books back in to the school, but they'd been good enough to mostly let it pass. They were like that for a while, he thought, a family of sorts, each with a room of the trailer to clean on Sunday, each carrying wounds and sadnesses.

The moon came up whistle-thin. A tooth, a claw, the leanest blade. And a low wind skulked among the twisted knots of sage and greasewood and drifted down the hills, its breath cool and dry where it touched him on the inside of his arm, the hollow of his neck. Because he wanted to, because he'd realized in the telling there was so much to tell, he told Rowdy about the countless days he'd spent tromping through the woods, trapping and hunting in the Bulls. He told about the sheer sides of canyons, the faded markings that Indians and homesteaders had carved into the sandrocks. He told about the elk herds growing year after year, surprising everyone, and the beetle-sick pine trees, whole ridges gone orange with chewed, dead trees. He told about the time he and his old man were checking their trapline when they came on a lynx, the first and last he'd ever seen, just as it was about to gnaw through its own front left knee. His father, calm as could be, raised up his .22 and put a clean hole in the cat's head. They skinned it out that day and cured the hide, and even now that banded, dun, three-legged lynx hide hung across the back of the easy chair in the trailer.


  • "Wilkins delivers a Shakespearean mix of drama and mortal danger in crisp and beautiful language...He renders the effects of violence and trauma on the daily machinations of human lives...The world of the novel, rural Montana, is presented with the native realism of someone familiar with the people, language, landscape, and controversies of the 'way out here'...He captures the social dynamic of communities of few people spread over many swaths of land...This novel instills hope. Wilkins has produced a remarkable book filled with characters who, despite their inherent differences over how to exist on the land, remind us of the myriad reasons that every person might be loved."Jason Hess, The Oregonian
  • "A tense story delivered in sharp, evocative sentences, Fall Back Down When I Die captures what feel like eternal tensions of land, loyalty, and vengeance. . .Wilkins is also a talented poet, and his sense of sound and line seeps into his prose. . .He has a fine sense of pacing, imbuing the book's final quarter with an almost dizzying suspense. He's at his most poetic when setting the scene with descriptions that create a palpable atmosphere. . .These are melodies of pain and penance -- the right song for a novel about a riven land."—Nick Ripatrazone, National Review
  • "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."—Holly Haworth, Orion Magazine
  • "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."—Heather Hansman, Outside
  • "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...Wilkins is evolving into one of our best American writers."—Chris La Tray, The Missoulian
  • "Gorgeous...Spellbinding...The land itself is almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins's poetic prose...A gripping debut."—Sarah Gilman, High Country News
  • "Powerful...This is a story of realistic, complex characters whose lives intersect on a big canvas -- as big as eastern Montana...Joe Wilkins infuses his novel with a sense of personal attachment to both the history and current realities of life and conflict across the vast landscape."—Mindy Cameron, Lewiston Tribune
  • "Nuanced and textured...Fall Back Down When I Die seeks to point a way forward toward community and compassion, toward understanding."—Rachel Hergett, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
  • "The lurking menaces in the lives of each character in Fall Back Down When I Die are shadowy, elusive, and always just out of reach, complicated by a set of decades-old, interrelated conflicts...the oppressive poverty and hardship that lingers in the atmosphere is palpable."—Erin H. Turner, Big Sky Journal
  • "Stunning, haunting, and complex...Wilkins's combination of vibrant language and characterization elevates the novel...he forces readers to see beyond the stereotypes of rural America and embrace the characters as sophisticated and dynamic individuals...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, Split Rock Review
  • "Joe Wilkins has risen to a very special peak with this heartrending novel of hard living and lonesome hope in the vast American landscape. I cannot praise it enough."—Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the national bestsellers The House of Broken Angels and The Hummingbird's Daughter
  • "The poetry of this beautiful novel isn't only in the language--and it's certainly in that--but also in Joe Wilkins's keen understanding of the Bull Mountains in eastern Montana, of the people who have left their mark on the land there, or tried to erase it, and of the mysterious complexities of the human heart that drive us to one side of the law or the other."—Elizabeth Crook, author of The Which Way Tree
  • "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
  • "Fall Back Down When I Die is a masterpiece. Lean and authentic, this twenty-first century western captures what so many rural Americans on the margins are feeling: righteous anger and bitter disconnection, powerlessness and flinty pride. And yet Joe Wilkins has endowed his unforgettable cast of characters with humanity, gentleness, grace, and hard-won poetry. In prose as rugged and beautiful as the story's Montana setting, Wilkins has written one of the best novels I've read in years. An absolutely stunning book in every way."—Nickolas Butler, author of the national bestseller Shotgun Lovesongs
  • "With a passion matched only by his compassion, Joe Wilkins has crafted a novel that perfectly explicates the clash between the cowboys and ranchers of the old West and the environmentalists and seekers of the new. No polemic, Fall Back Down When I Die is populated by vibrant characters drawn with fairness and deep heart, boys and men, girls and women who will get under your skin and stay there, and is full of vivid descriptions of the Montana landscape that are spot-on and swoon-worthy. Finally, this is a book about America: its violence, its traumas, its entitlements, and its stultifying rage."—Pam Houston, author of the national bestsellers Cowboys Are My Weakness and Sight Hound
  • "In an electric narrative that busts out in a rare rural poetry when you least expect it, this brilliant novel places red state zeitgeist and gray wolves squarely in its sights and, in the end, shoots both, to my grateful amazement, with deep understanding and compassion. What a balm, Joe Wilkins's eloquent voice of mercy calling out in the post-Western night."—David James Duncan, National Book Award finalist and bestselling author of The Brothers K and The River Why
  • "A heart-rending tale of family, love and violence...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. 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."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "In his first novel, shorty story writer, poet, and memoirist Wilkins writes of hardscrabble life on the northern Great Plains with mesmerizing power, creating characters with rich if troubled interior lives who are desperate for agency and haunted by absent fathers. Wendell and Rowdy's slowly blossoming relationship is as lovely and breathtaking as the book's tragic ending is inevitable and devastating. Suffused with a sense of longing, loss, and the desire for change -- asking deep questions about our place in the landscape and what, if anything, we are owed -- this is a remarkable and unforgettable first novel."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "Montana's rugged beauty is poetically evoked in Wilkins's fine debut. This is an accomplished first novel, notable in particular for its strong depiction of the timeless landscape of Montana's big sky country."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Mar 12, 2019
Page Count
256 pages

Joe Wilkins

About the Author

Joe Wilkins is the author of the award-winning memoir The Mountain and the Fathers. His work has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Harvard Review, Slate, and elsewhere. He is a Pushcart Prize winner and a finalist for the National Magazine Award and the PEN/USA Award. He lives with his wife and two children in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

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