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Tim Johnston’s ‘Descent’ is as thrilling as it is disturbing



By Tim Johnston

Algonquin Books

376 pages, $25.95

By Karen Brady


Life is cruel – sometimes exquisitely so – in Tim Johnston’s stark and aptly named new novel, “Descent.”

People of the Plains meet the mighty Rockies in this beautiful and disturbing book as, in one terrible human act, a family is shattered, is inexorably changed – giving us quite enough, thank you, for an intense read.

But there is more afoot here. Johnston, whose only earlier novel was for young adults, makes of the Rockies one striking protagonist, the vast, enigmatic force against which a father and son, a mother and daughter pit their individual desires for release.

Thus a book that Johnston’s publishers are heralding as a literary thriller becomes a stirring psychological study as well – a documentation of responses to horror, to loss and unknowing, all at the knees of the majestic Rockies.

It is the kind of horror, loss and unknowing that could happen to anyone out there, yesterday, today or tomorrow. And so we read “Descent” knowing we are not immune, that no one is safe – in this case the fictional Courtland family’s 18-year-old daughter, Caitlin, who is about to start college on a track scholarship.

Vacationing in Colorado with her parents and 16-year-old brother Sean, she decides on an early morning run in the mountains, coaxing Sean to come along, on his bike, to track her – never imagining that only Sean would be brought back later, by ambulance, and that she would be gone, no one knowing what happened to her for three years, her father Grant staying in Colorado almost the whole time, searching outwardly, searching inwardly, including:

“… times he would pause altogether to stare into the hills beyond the ranch, up into the climbing green mountains. The sunlit creases in the pines where some living thing might travel, bear or moose or hiker or daughter. One speck of difference in the far green sameness and he would stare so hard his vision would slur and his heart would surge and he would have to force himself to look away … and he would take his skull in his hands and clench his teeth until he felt the roots giving way and the world would pitch and he would groan like some aggrieved beast …”

Caitlin is more than gone: She was abducted by a stranger from her running path, a man in a jeep who first ran down Sean, seriously injuring him, leaving him for dead when Sean neither moved nor opened his eyes. But he heard. He knew. And he knew his parents knew he knew, his father telling his mother Angela at one point:

‘He was just a boy. And he was hurt. What could he have done?’ “ ‘I don’t know, I don’t know…, Angela replies. “But he just lay there. He just lay there while she got into that man’s car and I can’t help it, Grant, when I look at him all I can think is, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you stop her?”

Angela will return to the Courtland home in Wisconsin – heartbroken, fragile, already no stranger to tragedy, having lost her twin sister, Faith, to drowning when they were Sean’s age. Lost her Faith, the symbolism clear. And later Angela married Grant – who was, at times, unfaithful to her. No wonder, then, after losing Caitlin, too, that Angela attempts to take her own life.

No wonder, too, that Sean – as soon as he can fend for himself despite a permanently deformed leg – sets off on his own, wandering from state to state, taking odd jobs, living rough. At one point, in Nebraska, he:

“got a cigarette lit and stood looking out over the land… Late February, he thought. Maybe March. To the west a darker scrim of gray sky swept the ground, rain or snow, coming along, its smell already there, and looking out over the whole shelterless world he wondered what you would do or where you would go if you were out there on foot with nothing but the clothes you wore, alone in that emptiness when the storm came. It was what he always wondered, plains or mountains or desert.

“He was now eighteen. She would be twenty-one.”

Grant and Sean, father and son, inhabit the lion’s share of “Descent” – but it is Grant who, like the Max von Sydow figure in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” is the most memorable, searching and questioning, yes, but, like von Sydow’s Töre, purposefully seeking a father’s revenge:

“What can he do, this father, in the face of such cruelty, but ask the God he never believed in to bring her back?” Grant asks. “And if he won’t bring her back, or show him how to find her, then some other deal must be made. Some other terms. I never believed in God like I never really believed in the truly bad man. In his power to touch me.

“Now I ask of this God, that if he will not give me my daughter back, at least give me my bad man. At least give me that. I spend my nights dreaming of nothing else. Of getting this man in my hands. I wake up with the taste of his blood in my mouth…”

Grant, we know, has a bad man in mind – and it is Billy, the sadistic son of Grant’s elderly friend and neighbor, Emmet. We also think there is a time when Sean and a friend come upon a nearly hidden, remote place where Caitlin is being kept, and a time when Grant or Sean shares a cigarette, outside a bar, with a stranger who may or may not be the stranger who abducted Caitlin …

There are both ravishing and breathless moments here – including an entire section devoted solely to an (aborted) escape by Caitlin, down, down, down in the unknown terrain where she is being held, powered by a pair of snowshoes. But, even then, it is in the psyche and not with the action that Johnston stops us – as when Grant explains to a woman he is seeing that he stays, looking for his daughter, not because he believes Caitlin will be found.

“I stay,” he tells his friend, “because I disbelieve. I disbelieve. I don’t hope. I don’t pray. I disbelieve. I disbelieve and I reject and I renounce, and there’s nothing more to say about me.”

“Descent” is not a perfect book – Johnston is sketchy with Angela and Caitlin – but it is a fine example of what can be wrought when ghastly headlines are placed in the hands of author as lyrical and profound as Johnston.

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.