As a service to readers, I’m encouraging you to clear some time from your work- and parenting- and social- and housekeeping- and volunteering- and life-filled schedule to get a substantial nap in before picking up Tim Johnston’s new literary thriller, Descent. It’ll likely keep you up, turning pages and invoking the book lover’s late night solemn vow of “just one more chapter.”
(Note: On Thursday, January 22, author Tim Johnston will be appearing at Story Booth [in Crosstown Arts, 438 N. Cleveland] at 6:00 p.m. for Booksellers’ first Literary Tastemakers event of 2015, where he will be reading from Descent, answering questions and signing his gripping new book.)
As a high school graduation present for their daughter, Caitlin, the recipient of a track scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, the Courtland family takes a vacation to the Colorado Mountains. Caitlin picked the mountains for her graduation trip because she wanted to train in the thin air and steep inclines, better preparing herself to compete at the college level.
On her first pre-sunrise mountain training run, accompanied by doughy, out-of-shape Sean on his mountain bike, while parents Grant and Angela remain sleeping at the rented resort cabin, Caitlin is faced with an impossible decision with life-altering… possibly life-ending…consequences. After a speeding jeep crashes into Sean, leaving him barely conscious, bleeding and with a gnarly mangled leg, Caitlin can either accept the driver’s offer to take her down the mountain until she gets a signal on her cell phone or remain with Sean in the remote wilderness and hope the driver sends for help, which he coyly, playfully, menacingly implies he will not. In fear for her brother’s life, Caitlin decides to take her chances getting into the jeep for a ride to a cell phone signal. Caitlin doesn’t return.
Descent picks up a couple of years after Caitlin’s disappearance and backtracks periodically to fill in the gaps of what happened that day and in its immediate aftermath. The book’s set-up is the stuff of standard “woman-in-peril” thrillers, but Johnston avoids the clichés and transcends the genre in two key ways.
First, Descent stands apart from most “woman-in-peril” stories in that Johnston doesn’t try to trade on violence to elicit feelings, ratcheting up the cruelty to the victim and asking us to witness and recoil from her abuse. The author is far more interested in exploring the human toll of this kind of loss: the second-guessing, the recriminations, and the regret. Most of all, it’s about the toll that hope—blind, open-ended hope—as well as the loss of hope take on the individual people that make a family.
Second, Johnston transcends genre through his sure and evocative prose. He exhibits a masterful sense of place, whether it is a rustic mountain cabin, an interstate highway in a sleet storm or never-ending expanse of snow atop a mountain. You’re never any more lost venturing down a massive, landmark-less mountaintop than the character you’re accompanying. And while much of the story concerns the emotional and mental states of each member of the Courtland family, Johnston’s writing is expressive, concrete, visceral, tactile. You experience each fishtail and slide in a car ride up a treacherous snowed- and iced-in mountain road. You can feel the physical difficulty and strain of trying to run in snowshoes across foot-deep snow. You feel the bone-deep cold. Punches land. Violence is felt.
An emotionally affecting, well-paced literary thriller, Descent will keep you up, either reading late into the night or lying in bed wishing you’d hugged your loved ones just one more time when you last saw them.