By Marlys Hersey
Where the Mountains are Thieves. By David Marion Wilkinson. 330 pages. Goldminds Publishing, LLC (2013). $28.99.
We get a lot of books sent to us, free, presumably in hopes we will read, love, and praise them in our publication. And I am sorry to report that most of them we simply don’t find the the time to read. But when Where the Mountains are Thieves arrived, it caught my attention. Maybe it was the cover, with a stunning image (by local Quigg Photography) of lightning striking a dark, stormy desert lanscape. Or maybe it was that I had met and enjoyed the company of the author David Marion Wilkinson when he lived in the Big Bend; I recalled that he’s really charismatic, really funny, and a bit larger than life—as is the narrator of this novel, Jesse Reverchon, who bears more than a little resemblance to the author.
Where the Mountains are Thieves starts off with a giant heaping pile of foreboding: “Long before I ever laid eyes on the mountains of Southwest Texas, I swear I heard them calling. In the autumn of my life, Rebecca and I chose to make them our home. And they stole one life from me and gave me another. You know this story….” And yet somehow, after being immersed for a few hundred pages in the slow pace of life of our narrator, the Houstonite-turned-Big Bender, I was still completely surprised and aghast at the dramatic, tragic turn the story takes. I won’t spoil the read for you, but suffice to say it’s a doozy, and very cinematic in its unfolding. And heartbreaking. And this dramatic climax pushes the story into a whole different league of beautiful, gut-wrenching story and writing.
Yet equally great about the novel is that there’s really not a lot going on for the first hundred or so pages, and yet I was, inexplicably, completely drawn in and compelled by the narrator. We meet Jesse Reverchon as he recounts his first few years living just south of Alpine, having moved here from Houston with venture capitalist wife Rebecca, taking a break from her fast-paced, stressful, moneyed life, and their junior-high-school-age son, Travis. Jesse tells us his impressions of his new home, the very different style and pace than what he’s used to, the cultural clashes he encounters, told with such raw yet dry wit:
I slow a little and roll down Travis’ window. Their circle opens to welcome me, but I’ve already learned these three dudes are basically a walking tar pit. To offer more than a short greeting is to be mired for forty-five minutes with people who have more money, time, and sense than I do.
He also tells us, slowly but surely, what happened to his marriage, his writing career, his waning self-confidence to land him and his family in this new-to-them place, hoping to heal the marriage and spend more time with his son—and to finish one lagging writing project and finally write the Great American Novel.
And in the telling of his midlife crisis, in essence, the normally brash, somewhat crass, definitely not politically correct Jesse Reverchon is endearingly raw, darkly funny, and very insightful. He’s also extremely compassionate and magnanimous in trying to understand the perspective of his distinctly un-cuddly wife. All that just makes us readers sucked in even more, even as we sense the marriage is likely to implode.
Then there’s Jesse’s son’s little league baseball team, whom he ends up coaching: I’m not even a big baseball fan and some of the plays are lost on me, and yet the kids on the team and their relationships with Jesse are so real, and so endearing, that the baseball scenes work for me, too. When the Alpine team travels to Terlingua, Marfa, and Fort Davis for away games, the novel nails the essence of those towns, too.
Where the Mountains are Thieves also succeeds in the non-person characters, if you will, those undeniable entities of the Big Bend who take on a life of their own, ebbing and flowing through the story: the wind, the rains, the harshness of the desert, the big sky, the stark beauty of the region, the lurking segregation, family history, alcoholism, a mysterious black dog and other fauna, and the chronic difficulties in getting things done quickly out here, especially building and repairing things.
If the novel started out as a comic thing, it sure didn’t end up that way, admits Wilkinson when I spoke with him via phone in early January. During the five years the author spent writing and revising the book, “some professional and personal disappointments stacked up” and greatly influenced the direction and tone of the novel. Though now back in the writing business again, Wilkinson notes that for a while, just like the novel’s narrator, even after decades as a professional writer and several published books, he “couldn’t justify it anymore. I wasn’t making any money…. I got two kids in college: I gotta make a living…. That disappointment, sense of failure, worries of middle age—that all bled into the narrative.”
Though “proud of every page,” Wilkinson illuminates an interesting twist often inherent in the writing profession: in fact, he can’t really say he likes the book. “It’s a middle-aged person coming to terms with failure. Is it pleasant for me to read? No. I don’t know what to make of that book…. I’ve reached a point where I like life-affirming stuff. I don’t like doing this dark crap. Even I was surprised how dark the story is.”
Wilkinson faced many disappointments and challenges in getting Where the Mountains published, noting many changes in the publishing industry over the past decade or so (“It’s beautiful—but there’s no market for it,” one agent told him.). Thankfully, now “out officially” for a little over a month now, the novel is available at local bookstores and online.
“It’s my answer to ‘what kind of person are you?’” states Wilkinson about the novel. “I’m a writer, damnit. I brought in everything I knew about storytelling. Did I learn my craft? Did I do my job? Yeah, I f—-n’ did. Maybe you don’t like the book, maybe you wish me well and think I should be working at Costco. But whether you like the book or not, you read that and tell me I’m not a writer.”
Despite Wilkinson’s reputation for great writing, his status as writer in residence at Sul Ross, and Blair Pittman’s proddings of me to read Wilkinson’s books, until this one, I had not read any of them, not even the ones for which he is famous in these parts. (“See: you’re part of the problem!” Wilkinson proclaims when I confess this in talking to him about his writing and changes in the publishing industry that forced him to go back into working in the oil business to make a living when he left Alpine a few years ago.) Now I sure will.