Short take: Like a poetic ollie to the cerebral cortex. I don’t know what that means, but yeah.
I was never part of the skateboard craze because it’s impossible to read on a board. Also, I am tragically uncoordinated. But I caught bits and pieces of it from the sidelines. There were a few boys in high school who might have been outcasts in a different time, but were more like loner anti-heroes, with their baggy pants, Vans shoes, floppy hair, and ever-present boards. I heard the words “ollie” and “kick-flip” and “half-pipe” thrown around in study hall, mixed in with a generous, varied and constant stream of profanity. Surrounded by reverence for the “jocks” who played organized sports, these rough kids with their loose gangly limbs defied at least 4 laws of physics daily, with untouchable awkward grace.
Which is exactly how If I Fall, If I Die is written. From the first sentence (“The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die.”) we’re in a different world, a place where life has to be kept very small to be sustained, where the terrible things Outside have hungry jaws and will devour beloved sons. It’s a world where love is expressed through obsessive vigilance, where rooms in a house are known as San Francisco, Cairo, and Venice, where every scribble is a Masterpiece.
Will lives with his mother Diane, Inside. She is extremely agoraphobic, and has other fears too numerous to count. At one time, she was a renowned filmmaker, but once she got sucked into the Black Lagoon of terror, all of that ended. Everyday life frightens her to the point that Will wears a helmet most of the time, the knife drawer in the kitchen is padlocked, meals are only prepared in a slow cooker, and if a light bulb burns out, the preparations before changing it are extensive.
She and Will spend all of their days and nights inside their house, having food and all other necessities delivered. Will’s only interaction with the outside world is brief conversations with deliverymen, until the day he ventures Outside.
In the space of a few minutes, he meets another boy, gets his first-ever injury, and realizes how much he’s been missing. Will demands more freedom, and begins going to school, where he befriends Jonah, the outcast Native American skateboarder and Angela, also a misfit due to a terminal illness. He tries to find the boy he first met, Marcus, but Marcus has gone missing.
And from there, the story is a beautiful spiral. The tight (and tightly wound) center is Diane’s mind, where we travel during chapters titled Relaxation Time. She takes us through a stream of consciousness history of her life, her gifts and tragedies, and we not only understand the origins of her fear and rules, but they start to seem almost like a rational response to the world she’s inhabited.
The next circle is Will and Jonah, troubled boys who are both desperate to escape their upbringing, who turn all of their pain and anger to mastery of their boards, and by extension, their destinies. They bond over their common traits, such as their fractured families, and learn from each other through their differences. Jonah’s stoicism and strength in the face of adversity (and his wonderful, terrible, Biblically-named brothers) were among the highest points in a book that really had no lows.
Finally, there’s a larger story, the mystery of Marcus’s disappearance, the threats of the local crime lord known as The Butler, the stranger who speaks bizarrely and calls himself Titus, and the long-simmering tensions in a town whose industry has died off, and where Whites and Natives exist in an uneasy stew of mutual resentment.
If I Fall, If I Die is one of those books that shouldn’t work, but does. There are a lot of elements, like the focus on skateboarding, or Titus’s indecipherable soliloquies, that are usually turn-offs. The plot is hard to follow at times, given the strange mentalities of the narrators. The characters are all completely outside of most people’s experiences, and so, not very relatable. But at the same time, the characters are so richly drawn, and their experiences and emotions are so vividly described that they are irresistable.
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS. And a wetsuit. You never know when you’ll have to change a lightbulb.