A fictional voice from the South, still echoing from 1963, helped author Joe Wilkins find a fictional voice from the Bull Mountains of Montana in the early 2000s that binds together his debut novel "Fall Back Down When I Die."
Wilkins' novel is told primarily from the perspectives of three characters. All three characters lives are connected by violence, geography, economics, and memory that begin to swirl together as a government-approved wolf hunt in the Bull Mountains approaches during President Barack Obama's first term.
Verl is a disenfranchised rancher loose in the Bull Mountains after killing a game warden. Wendell is a young man working on a Musselshell County ranch and struggling to raise his meth-addicted, incarcerated cousin's developmentally delayed 7-year-old son. The other major voice in the novel is Gillian, an assistant principal in a small, fictional Musselshell County school who comes to view her Billings home as a refuge from the anti-government political ideology she sees all around her.
Verl's voice, which originated in a short story, is where the novel began, Wilkins said in a recent phone interview. It was Wilkins obsession with Eudora Welty's 1963 short story "Where Is The Voice Coming From?" that led him to discovering the voice of Verl. Welty's story was written in the aftermath of the murder of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The first-person story was written in what Welty imagined was the voice of Evers' killer, even though the killer had not been identified when she began writing.
"What I was writing about really was that world of hate I felt I had grown up with and felt I could speak as someone who knew it," Welty told William F. Buckley, according to a 2013 article in The New Yorker.
"Her first thought is I know who did it, I don't know exactly who did it, but I know who did it because they're my people," Wilkins said. "I remember hearing that and thinking about all our struggles here in the West, about land use, culture, ways we've struggled to be on this land, ways we've struggled to be on it together."
"Fall Back Down When I Die" also draws its inspiration from the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 by anti-government militias, Wilkins said.
Oregon is where Wilkins currently lives. He works as the director of the creative writing program at Linfield College. He has also lived in Washington, Mississippi and Iowa, experiences he says "allow you to see more deeply into your own culture, your own background."
For Wilkins that background and culture can be found in the West and in Montana, where he was raised.
"It is absolutely the primal landscape for me. When I dream that’s where I go, when I close my eyes that’s what I see," he said.
Wilkins says he grew up largely on a sheep and hay ranch north of the Bull Mountains and described how he would save weeks of pay at a time for trips to the B. Dalton Bookstore at the Rimrock Mall in Billings.
The city plays a significant role in Wilkins' novel and various locations and events make cameos, including the Rimrocks, the Starbuck's on Grand, Jake's, the Class C Boys Basketball District Tournament and as Wendell describes them, "the gray one-way streets that always made him nervous."
Gillian recalls a drive through town that sent her "sliding through the shadows of refinery stacks and bulbous, spiral-staired oil tanks along the ragged edge of Billings."
But despite the large role of Billings, the heart of Wilkins' novel is in the Bull Mountains of Musselshell County and in the regional mythologies that give meaning to the lives of his characters, many of whom are trapped in a ruthless present.
In those stories passed down between characters, men who are valued less than endangered species stand for freedom against an oppressive government. But Wilkins novel argues that the truth is far more complex.
"It can be good if our mythologies match the world, if they sustain us. But we can also of course have dead wrong mythologies. I think we’re definitely dealing with that across the country but also in the interior of the West," Wilkins said. "When we deal with masculinity, mythologies of our own history as a nation, and the ways that we understand how the West was homesteaded, which was pretty much a colossal failure, but we don't think of that way. And of course that homesteading was predicated on a genocide of Native folks. And I think we still have that mythology that it works. That the West was won. That it was a win."
In challenging those myths, Wilkins said he also hopes the novel will show readers "a more textured, nuanced version of Montana."
Much of Wilkins' published work is poetry. His attention to language is evident from the beginning of the novel when, after a chapter from Verl, Wendell watched "the tire-kicked dust bloom and sift through shades of gold, ocher, and high in the evening sky a pearling blue."
Wilkins says he is currently at work on another novel, also set in Eastern Montana, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s.
He will be giving a reading at the Billings Public Library at 5 p.m. on Friday.