If I Fall, If I Die

If I Fall, If I Die

by Michael Christie


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A heartfelt and wondrous debut about family, fear, and skateboarding, that Karen Russell calls "A bruiser of a tale . . . a death-defying coming-of-age story."

Will has never been outside, at least not since he can remember. And he has certainly never gotten to know anyone other than his mother, a fiercely loving yet wildly eccentric agoraphobe who panics at the thought of opening the front door. Their world is rich and fun- loving—full of art, science experiments, and music—and all confined to their small house.

But Will’s thirst for adventure can’t be contained. Clad in a protective helmet and unsure of how to talk to other kids, he finally ventures outside.  At his new school he meets Jonah, an artsy loner who introduces Will to the high-flying freedoms of skateboarding.  Together, they search for a missing local boy, help a bedraggled vagabond, and evade a dangerous bootlegger.  The adventure is more than Will ever expected, pulling him far from the confines of his closed-off world and into the throes of early adulthood, and all the risks that everyday life offers.   

In buoyant, kinetic prose, Michael Christie has written an emotionally resonant and keenly observed novel about mothers and sons, fears and uncertainties, and the lengths we’ll go for those we love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804140829
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 816,218
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL CHRISTIE received an MFA from the University of British Columbia and is a former professional skateboarder. His first book, The Beggar's Garden, was a finalist for a number of major Canadian prizes and the winner of the City of Vancouver Book Award. He lives with his family on Galiano Island, British Columbia. If I Fall, If I Die is his U.S. debut.

Read an Excerpt


The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die.

He was not riddled with arrows, his hair did not spring into flame, and his breath did not crush his lungs like spent grocery bags. His eyeballs did not sizzle in their sockets, and his heart’s pistons did not seize. No barbarian lopped his head into a blood-soggy wicker basket, and no glinting ninja stars were zinged into his throat.

Actually, incredibly: nothing happened—no immolation, no bloodbath, no spontaneous asphyxiation, no tide of shivery terror crashing upon the shore of his heart—not even a trace of his mother’s Black Lagoon in his breath.

Somehow Will was calm.

The day’s bronzy light, shredded by a copse of birch, tossed a billion luminous knife blades onto the front lawn. And he dared to continue down the walk—where he’d watched hundreds of deliverymen stride to their house bearing fresh food for them to eat and new clothes for them to wear—with the paving stones granular and toilet-bowl cool under his naked feet. Venturing out into the unreal arena of his front yard for the first time in his memory, he discovered only early summer crispness in the air—this Outside air—its breeze slaloming through the jagged wisps of his cut-off shorts, in and out of the straps of his Helmet. Will had felt this same air sweep through the window in New York on those rare occasions he opened it, despite how it worried his mother, but something was sapped when it came through. He’d never immersed himself this way, not since his memory got impressionistic and gauzy as if it had been transcribed by a stenographer in full Black Lagoon.

Will was Outside because he’d heard an odd bang while painting a six-foot masterpiece his mother had commissioned for London, a composition she twice in passing compared to Mark Rothko, who was a genius painter, just like him. At first he’d thought another bird had struck the big picture window in Cairo. Will once watched a blue jay—he’d identified it with the bird book he used as a drawing reference—palsying there in the ochre dirt beneath the glass, its neck canted grimly as though trying to watch an upside-down film. Blood rimmed its eyes and its beak was shattered like an egg ready to be peeled. It had thought it would go for a nice flitter through Cairo, over the burnt-orange velour loveseat, through the high, bright cavern of the hallway where Will’s masterpieces were hung, past dim London with its ravine of bookshelves and credenza display of his sculptures, over the staircase with its twin railings she’d installed on either side (for safety), and pick off some food scraps around the slow cooker in Paris. Had its mother never warned it about glass? Will had wondered, sitting there fogging the window until the creature finally stilled and Will startled himself with a sob, both of pity, and of thankfulness for their safety Inside. Nothing ever died in their house—except for bugs, lightbulbs, and batteries. Outside, however, was another story.

Though his mother feared pets, other creatures had more successfully entered their home. He’d found trickles of ants in the basement, mouse turds peppering the pantry, and crews of flies sprinting across the windows. Rogue moths snuck through the door when Will opened it for deliverymen, their wings powdery and fragrant like the makeup that sat unused on his mother’s long teak dresser in San Francisco. He’d cup the moths in his hands, feel their desperate clatter between his palms, then cast them through the only unscreened window in Venice.

Sometimes people had come. Once the furnace was repaired by an ancient man who smelled of pastrami and wood smoke. And for a time the paperboy would leave his strange, grubby shoes by the front door and play LEGO with Will on the carpet in Cairo. At first it was thrilling, until Will noticed the older boy’s proclivity for breathing exclusively through his too-small nose and building only uninspired bunkerish structures, mixing colors together like an architectural test pattern. After a few weeks, Will stopped answering the door when he knocked, telling his mother that he didn’t need friends because he was an artistic genius. “Don’t toot your own horn,” she’d said, smiling.

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 chainsawing a trapdoor in the floor—but had never dared. Even when he lobbed their garbage bags as far to the curb as he could manage from the front foyer, or watched shirtless neighborhood boys plow their BMXs through the meaty summer heat, he’d never been sufficiently tempted. Mailmen over the years had asked why he and his mother were always home, and Will often replied, “Why are you a mailman?” with one raised eyebrow, which usually shut them up.

The real reason was that he was her protector. Her guardian. From herself. From it: the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t like he was trapped. The doors were not locked. She made no rules, issued no commandments, decreed no penalties, and exacted no punishments. Staying Inside was something he’d invented, intuited, for her sake, to keep her from falling so deep she’d tremble and explode and weep all her tears and go dry and insubstantial as the dandelion fluff that occasionally coasted Inside like tiny satellites. He’d always known that if fear took her for good, he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.

But birds usually made a different sound against the window, more sickening and soft, like a strike from those plush drumsticks used in marching bands, not the sharper bang he’d heard. In a gust of curiosity, Will had set down the fan brush he was using to texture a block of mustardy-green acrylic paint, then removed his smock and slipped out the front door as easily as entering a long-neglected wing of their house. He hadn’t actually expected catastrophe, or a bloodbath, but with little to compare to, hadn’t ruled them out either. Wordlessly she’d taught him that the Outside was built of danger, of slicing edges and crushing weights, of piercing needlepoints and pummeling drop-offs, of an unrelenting potential for suffocation, electrocution, mayhem, and harm. So today a generous portion of him was left mutely astonished that, so far anyway, the Outside was nearly pleasant.

Thrilling himself with his own daring, Will moved now from the concrete out into the grass, grotesquely alive beneath his feet—a carpet made of salad that he half-expected to grip his toes and hold him fast. Luckily, his Helmet would safeguard him if he tripped or a branch dropped lethally from above. After some painfully prickly searching in the cedar bushes, he found it, the source of the bang: a husk of charred matter that resembled a tiny exploded wasp nest, smoking faintly like the humidifier his mother put in his room in the winter. The dirt was blackened around it, the air charred and sulfurous, and it occurred to Will this was some kind of bomb.

Now he glimpsed a figure dart around the side of the house, boy shaped, something heavy looped over his shoulders, and Will wondered if he’d been hurt somehow by the explosion. Will followed him around the corner, passing the strange dryer vent fuming with the startling Inside smell of fabric softener and warmed clothes, their clothes, and had just rounded the rear of his house when he toppled, a nuclear drill of pain boring between his temples, a masterpiece film of neon spindles whirling through his eyelids. Some diminished part of his mind registered a demonic shrieking, and he realized then that the noise was being squeezed from his own lungs. Desperately, he shaped the sound into an anguished plea for his mother but knew she couldn’t hear him with her Relaxation Headphones on. Amid the murk of agony he gathered the sense that something had struck his forehead and fallen to his feet. He tore open his eyelids. A purple crystal. The sun dazzled it before Will’s vision was again welded shut, this time a stickiness there. Still moaning, he bent, felt for it in the grass, and closed his hand around the rock.

“You’ll be fine,” a nearby voice said.

Will attempted to again pry open his eyes, but a stinging honey had sealed them. He stumbled forward with his hands lifted in the Outside air, baffled, sobbing, afraid to wipe his face for fear he’d make his mortal wound worse.

“Here,” the voice said, and Will sensed fabric against his face. He took it and pawed at his gluey eyes, prying them open to find a delivery boy, tucked behind the aluminum shed that Will had never entered. The boy had a green garden hose coiled around his shoulder and was about Will’s height and age, with stringy bangs that licked at eyes flitting everywhere except upon Will. His brown skin was the tint of the milky tea his mother often drank in her reading chair, balancing the cup precariously on the wooden arm—her most dangerous habit. In his hand was a target slingshot, the kind with thick rubber straps and a brace running up your forearm, a forbidden item that Will had ogled in catalogues for as long as he could remember.

“I didn’t even pull it back halfway, so you’ll live,” the delivery boy said smiling, the sudden warmth of his face momentarily soothing the ache of Will’s probable skull fracture, which he could already feel opening like a pistachio.

“You really think I’m going to live? Like, for sure?” said Will, woozy with blood loss and imminent death. “I’ve never heard anyone say that before . . .” Will pulled the boy’s shirt away for a moment, and more blood licked his eyes.

“For a while, anyway,” the boy said, shrugging. “But sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

“Who? The person who set that little bomb out front?” Will said, secretly wondering if the Black Lagoon could possibly be after this boy as well.

“Yeah,” the delivery boy said. “Among others.” He unshouldered the garden hose and dropped it to his feet. Will now saw that his smooth chest was festooned with a solar system of a hundred milky scars.

“Oh, are you hurt too?” Will said. “Did the bomb get you when you were delivering our new hose?”

“I’m fine,” the boy said casually before scrambling over to peek around the corner of the house like a soldier in a firefight.

Will followed him closely to examine his injuries. “Then how did you get those scars? Did the Outside do that to you?” The delivery boy turned and regarded Will as if he were speaking some cryptographic language, and Will wondered whether the infinite Outside air had tarnished his words somehow.

“What’s your name, kid?” the boy said, returning behind the shed, keeping his eyes fixed to the tree line near the creek behind Will’s house.

“Will. What’s yours?”

He paused, and Will was about to ask if he was okay again. “My name is Will too,” the boy said.

“Really?” Will said, tickled by the coincidence. “Are you hiding from someone, Will? Do you have your own Inside you can go to? If not, you can hide here. We could eat some of my mother’s bread and look at my masterpieces.”

“You live here?” the boy said, puzzled, tipping his head back toward Will’s house. “I thought this place was empty.”

Will tried not to think about his house. How disturbing it looked from the Outside, how shabby and finite. “Just me and my mother,” he said. “But this is my first time in the backyard,” he added. “I used to be afraid of going Outside, but now I’m mostly not.”

“That’s great, Will,” the delivery boy said, “Really great. But you do need to be careful out here. It can be dangerous. You should probably play it safe and go back inside and not tell anyone you saw me? Like your mom or anything?”

“Oh, I’m definitely not telling my mom about this,” said Will, pointing at his forehead. “I only came out because I heard that bang out front.” It was then he realized that the garden hose at the boy’s feet was old and worn. “But you weren’t delivering that hose, were you?” Will whispered conspiratorially, approaching him to lean in close. “That was already ours, right?”

“Anyway, it was good talking to you,” the boy said in a businesslike voice, jamming his slingshot into his shoelace belt and striding out into the backyard, exposing a lithe back just as baroquely scarred as his front. “I’d better get—”

“—It’s okay, you can have it!” Will interrupted, too afraid to follow him out into all that grass, astonished by how bravely he swam through the ocean of the Outside. “The guy who does our garden usually brings his own anyway. I’ll just order another one.”

“That’s real good of you, Will,” the boy said, returning to tentatively pick up the hose. His eyes drifted up to Will’s Helmet. “Too bad I didn’t aim a little higher,” he said with an odd smirk. “But you can keep my shirt. And maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Does this mean we’re friends?” Will called out as the boy paused near the back hedge and glanced over his shoulder. Will could see his belly undulate evenly as he breathed.

“Whatever, sure,” he said.

“But someone is still trying to catch you, right?” Will said. “Aren’t you scared?”

The boy cocked his head. “You were serious when you said this was your first time outside, weren’t you?”

Will nodded.

“You know what?” the boy said, smiling again. “I was wrong when I said you should go back inside. There’s nothing to be scared of out here.” Will realized then that this boy’s brave, bright face was a light he wanted to shine upon him forever. “Look, I bet your head has already stopped bleeding.”

Will pulled the shirt away and saw it was chocolate brown.

“See?” the boy said. “Nothing can really hurt you, Will.” Then he vanished into the ferocious-looking woods.


When Will returned Inside, the air in Cairo was thick as cream and stunk of couch crevasse. He gagged and ran to Venice, where he blotted his forehead with gauze to find that the actual cut was tiny: a single pit, like a one rolled on a die. Luckily, it hadn’t swelled and was high enough to cover with his bangs if he wore his Helmet tipped forward, which he did, both to protect his wound and to conceal it.

He hid the blood-blackened shirt—featuring a skeletal sorcerer wielding an electric guitar—down in Toronto, then returned upstairs to draw a cup of water from the sink in Paris. Slurping, he forced himself to sit, fighting to slow his breathing, while watching steam belch from the lid of the slow cooker—the only culinary appliance his mother could abide other than the breadmaker, because it couldn’t scald them, and it rendered food sufficiently mushy to eliminate the always present danger of choking. If ever Will stopped chewing while at the table, even if only pausing before flooding his mouth with milk, she’d leap up and start whacking his chest with her forearm.

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If I Fall, If I Die: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“Since he’d been Outside, he’d learned that fear was only a default setting, like how the TV always starts at channel 3 when you first turn it on. That everyone is born afraid of everything, but most people build calluses over top of it” If I Fall, If I Die is the first novel by prize-winning Canadian author and skateboarder, Michael Christie. Since he was a small boy, eleven-year-old Will Cardiel has lived Inside with his mom. Going Outside would just trigger a Black Lagoon for her, so he doesn’t. Until today. Unable to ignore a loud noise, he investigates, meets another boy his age, and sets in motion major changes in his life. Diane Cardiel has agoraphobia. Once a successful filmmaker, her anxiety is now so great (“…her heart insisted on racing, like an oil-doused bird flapping for its life in her chest. Other sensations, too, unmistakeable as neon: a dull pain throughout, a soreness in her blood, a twisting in her gut, stardust in her fingertips. It would pass, a mere miscalculation of an errant brain that found danger where there was none, that saw a lion instead of the lamb before her”) that her life is limited to inside their house in Thunder Bay (and sometimes, inside her bedroom). Her fears for Will are many, but she knows that one day soon, she will have to let him go, let him live a normal life. When he insists on going to school, she somehow manages her anxiety. But when she discovers he has been going to the waterfront, to the grain elevators, her dread is overwhelming: “…what drove her panic today wasn’t that her brother had died at the elevators, just as her father did, or that her mother died a young woman. It was that anyone did. Anywhere. That tragedy made no distinction. That it claimed equally those who invited it and those who didn’t. Those treasured, and those ignored. That there was no protection, no spell. It knew every face. Every address” The story, told over two years of Will’s life, is narrated by Will, by Diane and by a man named Titus, whose identity is gradually revealed (although astute readers will guess correctly). Christie gives the reader a plausible plot, with several mysteries that take twists and turns before being finally resolved. His characters are complex and believable: none are wholly good, all have flaws and failings. There is plenty of humour in Will’s discovery of the Outside world. Christie gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose. He can evoke the feel of an agoraphobic’s terror as easily as the confusion of an adolescent: “…such magnitudes of time had a similar underwhelming effect as when his mother first taught him that every single star was actually another sun just like theirs. They created a humph – then nothing. Some information was too enormous to cram into your mind” Christie obviously writes from experience: he grew up in Thunder Bay himself, and his love of skateboarding is apparent. This moving coming-of-age novel also touches on the plight of Native Canadians, the dangers of grain elevators, the attraction of pure grain liquor and the debilitating effects of agoraphobia. A remarkable debut.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A coming of age novel with a mysterious twist. Easy to see it is written from the heart.
RodRaglin More than 1 year ago
If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie Contrived ending trips up If I Fall, If I Die Will is an eleven year-old boy and the child of a single mother Diane. Diane suffers from agoraphobia and has kept herself and her son "Inside" their house in Thunder Bay for the better part of his young life. Because he knows nothing else except what his mother has told him he accepts that going "Outside" is a death sentence. Diane has inherited the family home and they live off generous monthly support payments from her ex-husband, a successful architect. Everything, apparently, can be delivered. One day Will hears an odd bang and goes outside to investigate. He doesn't die. He meets a young Native boy, the enigmatic Marcus. This brief encounter has a profound affect on Will and he sees Marcus as his friend and someone who can teach him about the "Outside". He begins to sneak out and search for Marcus and gradually realizes he's not in imminent danger. Despite his Mother's misgivings he decides he wants to go to school, rather than continue being taught at home. He makes friends with another First Nations boy, Jonah, an acquaintance of Marcus and together they continue to search for their missing friend. Soon their search arouses the ire of some very unsavory people who inhabit the decaying waterfront and grain elevators of Thunder Bay. Author Michael Christie's writing is fresh and professional. He does a masterful job in describing Diane's illness, which is the overriding issue in the novel. His depiction of a young boy coming of age with a mother who has a debilitating mental condition is convincing. Lesser issues like the inherent racism in Canadian society toward First Nations people is dealt with subtly and without being didactic. There's even some interesting information about the sport of skateboarding. However, the story is essentially a mystery, even if it's not promoted as one, and that's where If I Fall, If I Die gets tripped up. The climax of the novel is disappointing. I got the impression the writer wrote himself into a corner and had to come up with some pretty far-fetched, out-of character actions to get out of it. Forget the unlikely coincidences, what is really disconcerting is after doing such a good job of portraying the symptoms and manifestations of agoraphobia, Christie resorts to the misguided concept that when something really, really important needs to be done the mentally ill person can be put aside their illness, at least temporarily, and take the appropriate action. The denouement is unrealistic as well; bad guys turn good, Native children actually succeed, families are reunited, the mentally ill people live together in harmony. Like so many literary novels I read, I get the impression If I Fall, If I Die started out as something else, what I'm not quite sure and neither is the author. Eventually, authors have to end their stories and so it is for Christie, but not knowing where you're going in the first place means you don't know where you'll finish. That's probably why this ending seems highly unlikely rather than inevitable.
amvkv More than 1 year ago
Christie, Michael. If I Fall, If I Die: A Novel. London, New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print. Michael Christie's mom suffered from being an agoraphobe, so the author has some experience with one of the conflicts in the story. Will is a teenager whose mom is fearful of everything, fearful of fear. So Will grows up in the house, not shopping, not going to school, not going to the big Outside. His mom has him wear a helmet and wet suit to change a light bulb. She wasn't always this bad. In fact, she had a successful career before her fears disease worsened. This is the life Will knows, and his life is filled with art, music, the geography which they created within their home, and being with his mom. Then one day, he ventures Outside and instead of finding danger and dying, he found pleasure and life. Thus began his experiences with the great Outside and the people in it. He first meets a boy who says his name is also Will when it is actually Marcus. Of course it is not. Later, when Will is missing and cannot be found, he and his new friend Jonah search for him. Jonah is more than a fellow searcher, however, he becomes the friend Will never had. Jonah teaches Will about skate boarding. In contrast to Will's life within the confines of his home, he now finds risky thrills. In the journey to find Marcus, however, there are great dangers and some dangerous characters. The ending provides a surprise twist in the resolution making this an interesting read. It had an interesting start, but toward the end the mystery and problems the boys encountered seemed to drag the story out. I really liked the author's essay in the back of the book and the Questions and Answers he shares. I received this book from "Blogging for Books" and this is my honest review.
lorrieLR More than 1 year ago
This was an enjoyable book to read
loves2readIL More than 1 year ago
I received this book as an ARC through Random House, but was not asked to submit a review. I enjoyed this book. It was a coming of age novel that touched on many of society's problems. I highly recommend this novel and hope Mr. Christie is busy on his next one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
read 3/3-3/5. 5* [ I received this book free from the author through GoodReads/ First Reads, and I thank them for their generosity . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising"] Take a single highly agoraphobic mother whose caregiver is her preteen son. Will stays at home and orders their life by phone, signs for delivery, filters the Outside from the Inside where he and his mother are safe, and is a loner who does everything except really be a kid. Diane is the last surviving member of her family, who worked the grain shipping trade in Thunder Bay, Ninivut Province in Canada. A combination of freak accidents and alcohol have descimated the rest of her family. Arthur, her common law husband and Will' s dad is long gone to a second family in Europe, leaving her even more alone. And now Will is leaving for the Outside and public school...and she's afraid yet again that she can't trust him to come back to her. Will keeps trying to save the Inside from being destroyed by the Outside. He can hardly wait to grow up a lot of the time, but worries like a typical kid, on top of a case of compassion fatigue. He assembles a group of Skateborder nerds who, despite everything remain losly bonded. His best friend Jonah Turtle, an Indian, teaches him how to live Outside as they both grow up in a town where you either get involved in the Neverclear trade ( bootleg grain alcohol) or just exist. Jonah's brothers have broken from this cycle, and Jonah wants to be a doctor. Will just wants to live Outside, not Inside, and teenaged angst is added to this story. This book is depressingly fantastic. The agoraphobia is a whole separate character. Being tramatized really does effect people in different ways. This will be a book I return to, and a fantastic new voice in Canadian fiction
DMcClain More than 1 year ago
The challenges of parenting come to light in a tale of a mom living in fear and a loyal son, to both her and his friends. Please read the complete review here: http://danniespeaks.com/2015/01/23/book-review-if-i-fall-if-i-die-by-michael-christie/