Where The Mountains Are Thieves

Where The Mountains Are ThievesWhere The Mountains Are Thieves
Goldminds Publishing, 2013

“Atmospheric and absorbing . . . the climax packs a wallop and the emotional aftermath rings surprisingly true . . . A satisfying, illuminating read.”
– Publishers Weekly

Where The Mountains Are Thieves follows the turbulent life of husband and father Jesse Reverchon as he takes leaps of faith to repair his marriage and form a closer bond with his son. After a fast-paced, turbulent life in Houston, Texas, he transplants his family in the rural Big Bend Valley of West Texas hoping to slow down and resume his writing career, give his wife a break from the pressure of her venture capital company, and spend more time nurturing his family. His attempt yields mixed results, with Jesse falling back into old self-destructive patterns that threaten his efforts, but through rock-bottom events and honest soul-searching, he searches for peace with the hand he was dealt in life and the one he created.

Critical Praise for Where The Mountains Are Thieves

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.
Jesse Sublett, Writers’ League of Texas (January 3, 2014)

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 also 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, 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.
Marlys Hersey, Editor, Big Bend Gazette (January 2014)

A sign by David Marion Wilkinson’s writing desk reads “Joy.” It was his guiding principle as he attempted to write the ultimate comic novel, but life and the book took a different turn.

The result is “Where the Mountains are Thieves,” a solid novel that is equal parts funny and tragic, but 100 percent honest about human failings and what it means to be a writer today.

“I came to this place where writing a comic novel wasn’t possible,” said Wilkinson, who is best known for writing historical novels of the West.

“Thieves” follows Jesse Reverchon, a middle-aged author fresh from rehab and an affair who moves with his wife and young son Travis to Alpine to patch their lives together. Reverchon coaches his son’s baseball team and tries to buckle down and get his writing career back on track. Along the way, the reader is warned of an accident lurking in the pages ahead that will rock Jesse’s world.

Jesse says, “I came to understand that most novelists are strictly observers. At first I struggled with it, agonized over it. And then, about the time Travis was born, I accepted it.”

But in heartwarming and funny moments, Little League baseball proves Jesse’s salvation. Á la “The Bad News Bears,” he tries to whip a ragtag group of misfits into a team.

“It’s his catalyst to getting connected,” Wilkinson said. “His only success is impacting the lives of fatherless boys, but what he comes realize is they are saving his life.”

Wilkinson’s latest novel is itself a lesson in the vagaries of the publishing industry and the human heart.

Like his main character, Wilkinson had moved his family to Alpine (he has two sons and, unlike his character, no history of drug or alcohol abuse) to make a new life in the Big Bend region. He became writer-in-residence at Sul Ross State University, built a house overlooking Cathedral Peak, and befriended the sometimes-eccentric residents of the beautiful but isolated place. But his real-life marriage was falling apart.

David Marion Wilkinson’s new novel, “Where the Mountains Are Thieves,” follows a middle-aged author who moves with his wife and young son to rebuild their lives.

“You could sit there and watch the sun go down with a sense of peace and a feeling that everything’s OK, but then you look around and see it’s not,” he said.

Careerwise, it actually started in 2001. After three years of work, Wilkinson’s last novel, “Oblivion’s Altar,” was hot off the presses and receiving positive reviews when the events of 9/11 changed everything. The nation was in turmoil, and no one was reading fiction. Wilkinson turned instead to nonfiction with “One Ranger,” a biography co-written with famed Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson.

Suddenly nonfiction agents were hitting him up with work-for-hire projects, and he realized they saw writers as interchangeable widgets. Like his character Jesse, Wilkinson was desperate to prove he still had fiction-writing chops.

Nearly broke and recently divorced, he found himself back working oil fields as he had in his youth. He didn’t write for two years. When the words came, “Where the Mountains are Thieves” became a different, better, more honest book.

“There’s a little anger in the book, along with frustration, sorrow, regret,” he admitted.

It’s the writer’s story of when art meets commerce. Wilkinson cites Herman Melville, who stopped writing and became a customs inspector. Only after his death did perhaps his best novel, “Billy Budd,” see publication.

These days, Wilkinson is not sure about his next novel. His writing career has taken another turn. He’s been working as a writer on a History Channel miniseries about the Texas Rangers, and another in development about women spies during the Civil War.

“It changes every day,” he said of writing for television. “I’m good at that from what I’ve been through.”
Joe O’Connell, San Antonio Express-News (January 12, 2014)