IF I FALL, IF I DIE. By Michael Christie. Hogarth. 336 pages. $25.
“If I Fall, If I Die” is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Will who has spent most of his 11 years of life “Inside” with his pathologically agoraphobic mother. The thrills and challenges of boyhood are beautifully articulated by former professional skateboarder Michael Christie who writes, “The deep influence of skateboarding on North American culture is something that shouldn’t be underestimated,” and explains that he found parallels of “an almost monastic devotion” between writing and skateboarding.
Writers often forage the woods of their own lives for inspiration (“write what you know”) and Christie has culled memories from his childhood with his mother who suffered from agoraphobia. “If I Fall, If I Die” examines the frailty of life through the contrasting perspectives of Will and his mother, inspiring readers to question the competing desires of retreating from or running toward life.
“Of course, he’d considered going Outside thousands of times — as he’d considered executing a standing double backflip or walking around with his feet magnetized to the ceiling or chain-sawing a trapdoor in the floor — but had never dared.”
Will says he’s never been “tempted,” but the real reason he remains inside with his mother is because he believes he has to protect his mother from “The Black Lagoon,” or the fear and anxiety that descends on her daily.
Will knows that if he doesn’t protect her, “he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.”
The strongest writing appears in the early chapters that focus on the relationship between mother and son. Will and his mother depend on deliverymen, protective gear (Will wears a helmet and Diane listens to relaxation tapes) and careful routines to navigate the hazards of life.
Christie writes with a gentle humor so we see the absurdity of these rituals, but we are not laughing at them. He illustrates fear from both the adult and child perspectives.
“Will sometimes pictured their house surrounded by crackling electric fences and froth-mouthed Dobermans, sheer cliffs falling from their doorstep to an angry sea.” While Diane says, “What is raising a child except lying? It begins with the first shhhh ... everything is going to be ... and only gets worse from there.”
Set in the declining town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, the landscape exemplifies the darkness and danger that face Will as he begins, tentatively, to explore the Outside. We learn that Diane’s retreat from life was gradual, and before she decided to stay Inside, she worked as a documentary filmmaker, chronicling the “modern, urban malaise” of life on the streets of Toronto where they’d lived before she retreated to her childhood home in Thunder Bay.
One day when Will was a baby, anxiety overtook her as she waited for the subway with Will in a stroller. Soon, she couldn’t go into the front yard, then the basement, and finally certain rooms were off limits.
The narrative shifts between mother and son, so we occasionally get inside Diane’s head to see how “the outside closed upon her like the aperture of a camera.”
As a mother, I nodded my head in recognition of that first time I realized the world was a dangerous place.
“Motherhood acutely sensitized her to the menaces of the world: the murderous table corners, the seduction of electrical outlets, the friendly dogs that snap gladly at tiny fingers.”
Christie made me wonder whether fear was closer than I realized.
Will slowly begins to explore the Outside, and his transformation is both thrilling and heartbreaking. The first time he leaves the house, he is confronted and bullied by local boys, but he is so entranced with the world he discovers that he continues to venture out again and again. Soon he asks his mother to enroll him in the local school where he befriends a local girl afflicted with cystic fibrosis. The plot thickens and Will is mixed up with a strange black market/underground mafia group and Diane fades into the background.
This is unfortunate because while Will’s transformation is compelling, this alternate storyline is less believable and the narrative loses steam. The more compelling scenes are those in which Will begins to see his mother in a different light.
In poignant descriptions, Christie chronicles Will’s struggle between loving and hating his mother for the way she has kept him from life, and illustrates every parent’s fear of letting go. In the end, Christie has given us a novel that celebrates the dangers and rewards of growing up.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.