The misery of the American rural province, in the novel "Fall back down when I die” by Joe Wilkins
I had thought of buying this beautiful book on the internet, as many are used to do nowadays, especially in this unfortunate period during which we are plagued by such a dramatic epidemic, forcing us to limit the contacts with the world around us. But then I headed to the download of Arezzo, taking advantage of one of the few days whilst not in lockdown. It always makes a difference buying a good book in a small shop, which is a place, compared to other larger and more well-stocked bookshops in the city, where you can breathe the passion for good reading and not simply a place where books are sold. I was sure I would find it and I did.
"Fall back down when I die" is the debut novel by Joe Wilkins, already an award-winning author for the collection of memories of his childhood spent in the remote areas of Montana, where the story of Wendell, Gillian and little Rowdy is set. A borderland, tormented and hostile, where even today and perhaps even more markedly, rural poverty is the backdrop to lonely lives and destroyed families, in a vicious circle of violence, environmental degradation, alcohol and lack of education. In such a context the middle class no longer exists and inexorably abandons itself to oblivion. A little less than three hundred pages that go away in a couple of days and which I could have read all in one breath, if the fatigue of the working day did not make me capitulate in the evening after a few chapters.
The myth of the virility of the American West, torn apart again in this tragic and poignant story, like in so many others, can be set in the vastness of the American rural province, a world that does not seem to be able to find a way out of its own misery in a nation which remains, despite everything, the largest and richest nation in the world. An arid and wild land, violently stolen over a century ago to the native populations, the Crow and the Lakota, who had inhabited it for centuries, respecting it in their primitive simplicity. The advance of the settlers in search of new lands and the gold rush caused their definitive surrender about 150 years ago. Tribes now decimated, hungry and tired that right in the land of Montana, in the valley of the Little Big Horn, found their last legendary victory over General Custer's blue jackets.
The descendants of those settlers are the world where little 7-year-old Rowdy survives, a slightly retarded, malnourished and lopsided child, who is entrusted to his mother's cousin. A mother who never looked after him properly, who always left him at home alone, distracted by a reckless life made up of casual intercourses, alcohol and methamphetamines, to the point of being imprisoned for drug dealing. Rowdy, who hasn't spoken for months, is accompanied by social assistance in an impervious area of Montana, at the edge of the mountains, where the only relative who can take care of him, 24-year-old Wendell Newman, lives in a mobile home. The boy doesn't feel like sending him away, although he already has too many problems to get by, with few dollars in his pocket, an uncomfortable past and an unstable job. But as time passes Wendell manages to establish a precious bond with that fragile child, feeding him, protecting him from the cold, sending him back to school and giving him back that warmth that no one had ever reserved to him. Until the surprising epilogue which, in its undeniable tragedy, seems to light a candle of hope for redemption: a decisive rejection of hasty and senseless violence, combined with the desire to protect without hesitation the people we love. That obtuse violence embodied by men made evil by a life that deprived them prematurely of family affections and any emotional and economic stability and that determined their failures and tragedies, making them poor, dirty and grim. Men who believe that only with weapons they will be able to claim their freedom and their supremacy over the lands of their fathers, against a hated central government that they consider the only cause of their own guilty misfortunes. A land that, in their opinion, must be neither protected nor safeguarded, but just functional to man and his domain, thus justifying indiscriminate poaching, the extermination of mountain wolves and landfills in the crevasses.
Someone called this story a kind of modern western. But this is just one of the many stories of men, women and children who only try to survive their misfortunes against the backdrop of a hostile world and land that seem destined to a tragic fate. Characters who are unable to find meaning in their existence, overwhelmed and inert and whom not even escape seems to be able to save.
A novel that brings to mind the shocking news coming in these days from the US, a country already plagued by the ruthless brutality of the Covid-19 epidemic (over 350,000 dead) and which has to deal with what will go down in history as the year with the greatest deaths from overdose ever, over 81,000. Heroin, methamphetamines and the new powerful synthetic drugs such as fentanyl are exterminating above all the white middle class and, moving from the large metropolitan cities, are invading the American province and the states of west. Those deaths, categorized by many simplistically as "deaths from despair", to whom you have to add a suicide rate currently out of control (over 14 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants, about 50,000 people, as many as a populous city which disappears every year) are a drama that no one seems to want or to be able to face. In rural, less populous areas of the country, such as in the Montana of Wilkins' novel, the suicide rate is 25 percent higher than in the areas with at least one million people. Shocking numbers, meaningless, and which, when added to the deaths from alcohol abuse, reach unimaginable values of over 160,000 people who die every year "from desperation" and unfortunately the trend is constantly growing.
The overshadowed and perhaps inexorably disappeared myth of a modern American society who seem unable to find the tools to put into practice what its founding fathers had decreed to be, in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the inalienable rights for all men. Life, freedom and happiness.