The novelist Thomas McGuane arrived at a Montana ranch in 1968 by way of a childhood in Michigan, a degree from the Yale School of Drama, and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Save for a decade of winters in Key West, he hasn’t left the state since. Regional tensions are blurry to a newcomer, but when you’ve lived on the land long enough, you learn its history and fractures. “Clearly we have to find common ground among the various factions in Montana,” McGuane has said, “though I’ve not found a lot of progress in that direction.” The most dramatic scene unfolded in 1996, when the Montana Freemen, an anti-government group that rejected federal authority, engaged in an armed standoff with the FBI for 81 days. Although that incident captured national interest, the disagreements are local: Ranchers and hunters reject government attempts to regulate their land and activities. Squabbles over public land are legion. McGuane concluded: “Some of the disagreements we face are insurmountable.”
Insurmountable is bad for peace and policy but great for fiction. Fall Back Down When I Die, the debut novel from Joe Wilkins, captures what feel like eternal tensions of land, loyalty, and vengeance. Wilkins grew up on a sheep ranch near the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana, where his novel is set. He is a talented poet, and his sense of sound and line seeps into his prose. His memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, depicts those early ranching years in which he and his family “had to kill to live.” At first, the deed would be done by his father, “his black hair bright and wild in the early winter light,” who would walk up to a lamb, “put the rifle barrel in its soft ear and pull the trigger.” Next up would be chickens, heads chopped off by his father and grandfather and handed to the kids: “a line of us, happy children holding headless chickens upside down, blood running out and all over the dust.”
Wilkins’s novel, a tense story delivered in sharp, evocative sentences, captures the best elements of his poetry and nonfiction writing. It begins with Verl Newman, an acerbic and mysterious narrator who warns, “These Bull Mountains are mine.” His enemy is the government, which, according to one’s perspective, is either encroaching on the rights of ranchers and hunters or essential to the region. Verl’s first-person rants are interspersed throughout the novel, which is focused on the struggle of his son Wendell, a 24-year-old ranch hand. Wendell has inherited the family trailer — and he’s also inherited his cousin Lacy’s son, a boy named Rowdy Burns.
Lacy has been sent to prison for four years: three for methamphetamine possession, and one for child endangerment and neglect. At first, Wendell is not quite father material. When the social worker showed up and told him he was the closest kin to the boy, “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.”
He’s not ready for this responsibility — not in small ways (he doesn’t have enough food in the trailer) and for more-emotional reasons. His mother committed suicide a year earlier; he found her “slumped in the front seat of her Cavalier with a garden hose running from the tailpipe to the window.” Only in her mid forties, she’d quit her factory work after a series of unsuccessful surgeries led to rampant complications and an addiction to pain pills. The memory of her in that car — wearing a robe, her head on a pillow, the seat reclined — wounds him like nothing else.
Wendell has a good heart, but he’s not ready for a kid like Rowdy, whose terrible home life has scarred him into silence. Wendell takes the boy to his work at the ranch, and when his boss tries to shake the boy’s hand, Rowdy goes wild and has to be restrained. Soon, though, he gets used to tagging along. “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.” He even stays some days with the boss’s wife, although she “was more than a little distraught that Rowdy still hadn’t opened his mouth, not even to say his prayers.”
One character who does pray — “a habit from her Catholic girlhood that she’d never kicked” — is Gillian Houton, an assistant principal and counselor for the Colter School District. Her prayers are followed by putting pepper spray in her purse before checking on the homes of truant children. Gillian, a transplant from Texas, doesn’t have much patience for the “entitled, ignorant, violent men out there in the mountains, the ones who thought the whole of eastern Montana was somehow theirs to do with as they pleased.” People like her have to clean up their mess.
Her anger also has a more visceral origin: Her husband, Kevin, a game warden, was shot and killed by Verl Newman. “The law,” Verl narrates, “says the wolf can only be shot after confirmed livestock kills and the right paperwork and whatall.” His response: “The law is a goddamn crime. This land is mine. God gave it to me through my old dad and his old dad through him.” So he kills a wolf. Kevin finds it and says, though they’re friends, that he has to arrest Verl. “I know I am a man who will not be pushed one inch farther,” Verl says to himself. He shoots Kevin dead and flees into the mountains.
Gillian holds on to the pain of this memory, as does her daughter, Maddy, who happens to meet Wendell one night at a bar. They flirt, but she makes what he perceives as a snide comment about Rowdy, that he’s “missing out” on much of life. Fueled by drink and pride, Wendell obsesses over her words:
Was she saying he’d already somehow let Rowdy down? That no matter what he did it wouldn’t be enough? That people like him — his mother, his father, Lacy, him — simply didn’t have it in them? He felt his jaw tighten. He tried to let it go, but the world burned now at the limits of his vision. That same old shame, that fear and rage at being examined, judged, found wanting.
That night he gets blackout drunk and forgets to pick up Rowdy from his boss’s house. The boy continues to struggle and begins to get in fights at school. He soon changes districts and ends up under Gillian’s watch. She notices a bruise on his arm and, fueled by her hatred of Verl, thinks Wendell is responsible. Wendell is “the heir of it all,” she thinks. “He [is] even still living in that same godforsaken trailer. [He’s] made his choice.”
Now, as the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in over 30 years is about to happen, a band of locals starts a movement to upend government control of the wolf population. They begin by balking at the purchase of wolf tags but soon graduate to cutting holes in government-erected fences. They call Verl Newman a martyr. But Gillian is wrong — Wendell wants no part of his father’s violent legacy. As the novel develops, Wendell has grown close to Rowdy. He’s “been thinking that phrase more and more often — He’s my boy.” Verl is a legend to this anti-government group, and they want to remake the son in the image of the father — a campaign that leads to the doorstep of the trailer. The group’s brash, unpredictable leader, who idolizes Verl, is there to recruit Wendell for their cause. The man won’t take no for an answer.
Wilkins 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: “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.” These are melodies of pain and penance — the right song for a novel about a riven land.
This article appears as “Ode to a Fractured Land” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.