Where the Mountains Are Thieves
By David Marion Wilkinson
Goldminds Publishing (2013)
Our reviewer, Jesse Sublett is a musician and author in Austin, Texas. He has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 1999. Grave Digger Blues is his most recent novel. Broke, Not Broken: Homer Maxey’s Texas Bank War, by Broadus A. Spivey and Jesse Sublett, will be published by Texas Tech Press May 2014
If you’re an author in the Austin area, there’s a good chance that you’ll recognize David Marion Wilkinson when you see him. In addition to his physical stature (I’m six-foot-three and he makes me feel small), and big-heartedness (he’s been a big help to many writers, including me) he thinks big thoughts, writes big books, and sets his sights on big, sprawling themes.
David is best-known for his sprawling historical novels, Not Between Brothers (set in early 1800s Texas) and Oblivion’s Altar (covering six decades of the Cherokee Nation). One Ranger: A Memoir, co-written with legendary Texas Ranger Captain Joaquin Jackson, also covers a lot of territory, physical and otherwise (West Texas and the Ranger service), and the same could be said of his second novel, The Empty Quarter, which was informed by David’s experiences working on oil rigs in Saudi Arabia and the North Sea.
So here comes Where the Mountains Are Thieves, a modern novel set in West Texas, about a novelist with a crumbling marriage, a stalled writing career and what he fears may be an inherited curse of sorts. At 369 pages, it’s no lightweight snack, but it does represent a change of course in many respects. For one thing, the plot of the novel, in broad outline (except for something near the end which I’ll skip to avoid spoiling things) does closely resemble that of our favorite large author, Big Dave. In fact, protagonist Jesse Reverchon resembles Big Dave physically. He’s got the same not-necessarily-PC sense of humor, drives a beloved International Scout, moved to Big Bend for a while, went through a traumatic divorce, coaches baseball, and writes historical novels. If the reader is familiar with such details, it will probably enhance their enjoyment of the reading experience a great deal.
The architecture of Where The Mountains Are Thieves is again sprawling in time and space. Crucial parts of Jesse’s childhood are visited, and it flashes back and forth a bit during recent history, but primarily, the story takes us through the family unit moving from their home in Houston to Alpine. Jesse has one more historical novel to deliver, and after that, freed from the ugly distractions back in Big H, he’ll be ready to tackle the “Great American Novel,” or something like that. Rebecca, his wife, is leaving her high pressure venture capital business, which has been taken over by her imperious, backstabbing brother, and although we hear Jesse speak of her with great devotion and admiration roughly 95 percent of the time, I didn’t like her from page one. Maybe because I knew she would divorce him and cut him off at the knees. In other words, the imperious, backstabbing gene seems to run in her family. Travis, their young son, is realistic and cool and he hates the shit out of Alpine, at least at first.
The neighbors are weird and quirky in a West Texas way, but they’re anything but clichés. Jesse learns to slow down and talk to the people who live down the road, “where the holes go” (a bit of Big Bend septic tank wisdom), why the mountains are thieves, and a lot more. The baseball sequences are beautiful, period. Tautly written, spiked with humor, full of inside talk, full of love—not just for what sports can do for young people, but a father’s endless (and I mean endless) patience for children. I laughed out loud dozens of times.
Many of the jokes are on Jesse himself. When he jogs out to first base from the dugout, his flabby ass arrives a half minute later, he says (several times, because once is not enough), and to pretend that he doesn’t really have writer’s block, he rearranges his bullet outline, scans his character notes and main scenes, then shuts the PC down for the day. How’s the novel going, Jesse? Real good, had a great day. (OK, laughing at this one was painful.)
There’s so much great comic writing in this novel that I’m tempted to recommend the book on that aspect alone, but that would short-sheet the book’s other virtues, which includes a great deal of heartache and loss and yearning.
It’s not hard to predict that Rebecca will turn very nasty before the end of the book, but that’s only one source of sorrow. Jesse’s biggest worry is the Black Dog of depression, which finally chased his father down in middle age, causing his brain to short out, after which he lashed out at family, burned all his bridges and died young.
The book started a bit slowly for me, but perhaps it only seemed that way because I had an inkling of the drama that was about to unfold. I urge readers to bear that in mind, because the rewards for sticking it out are many. The scene where we learn what happened between young Jesse and his father is about as tight and harrowing as anything I’ve read in the last ten years that wasn’t in a brutal crime novel or horror story. There’s not an ounce of fat, not even a molecule.
The book has its excesses, but let me explain about that. Big Dave is, as I said, an author with big thoughts inside his head, and more than sufficient energy to share them. In conversation with him over a chicken fried steak lunch, the words keep flowing, jokes beget other jokes, additional tag lines come tumbling out, then the waitress comes by, and David brings her into the conversation, too. His company is worth its weight in gold; it’s all worth having. In a novel, you might expect a copy editor to take a scalpel to some of this, no matter how good it is, because you just don’t want to wear out your reader. I’m glad as hell that didn’t happen, because in this case, too much was just the right amount.
The climax is a little hard on the nerves. It’s tragic, painful, and beautifully written. Only because of the great care and skill put into the architecture of the story, this development was telegraphed long in advance. Bad things don’t necessarily happen for a good reason, but they do happen, and afterward, we adjust. Sometimes the adjustments seem fated to happen. The ending felt right and it was satisfying. I felt exhausted and drained and not a little bit bruised. Plus I really hated his ex-wife. I hated the way she smokes cigarettes, the way she tries to make Jesse feel small, her secret lunch meetings, her annoying friends.
Don’t think I’m raving about Where the Mountains Are Thieves because Big Dave is my friend. If I didn’t think it was great, I wouldn’t want you to read it. But it is, and you should. Right now.