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Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews

Descent

Descent
Tim Johnston.
Algonquin Books. 2015. 384 pp.
ISBN 978-1616203047.

Review by PD Mallamo


Buy now from Amazon! Johnston winds it up tight.

Early on you find yourself eagerly anticipating how he'll move you from point A to point B and then somehow to point C, but suddenly you're there and you're not entirely certain how it happened, only that the prose is propulsive and in this writer's hands the natural world is as beautiful as reality. Maybe more beautiful.

You scan ahead for a page break or the next chapter and look at your timepiece and think surely you can read from a new A to a new B but when you get there automatically sign up for a new C.

In a world of tight schedules and serial appointments this is a recipe for personal disaster.

So it goes with this work of art.

The story: A girl, an athlete, is abducted while altitude training on a high mountain road in Colorado. The search is futile. Meanwhile, her family disintegrates.

Like all great writers, Johnston teaches yet again how little we actually know of the human heart, especially in those we've learned to ignore or despise. If we look closely at hearts, he tells us, there may be good evidence for courage in the face of impossible obstacles, or forbearance in the vagaries of chance, or acceptance in the ruthless justice of God. Or not. There may be things, good and bad, we can't imagine.

"Redemption" may be stale word, a concept worn and abused through repetitive misuse, though when redemption actually manifests, it is a mighty and shocking thing. You could say the same about "resistance" or "resilience" or "audacity."

Some of the strongest American writers—Ellroy, Hemingway, McCarthy, McGuane—show us not simply how we are, but how we can be, how we may survive with sanity and honor in a random, irrational, wicked world that only too late reveals its worst secrets.

Critic Kenneth Burke investigates this in his essay "Literature as Equipment for Living," which details his unique approach to criticism: he assembles works of art into useful sociological categories. How do such categories function, he asks?

They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off the evil eye, for purification, propitiation and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another.

Hemingway, for instance, gives us strength and principle with a stain of necessary opportunism and cold-heartedness; Cormac McCarthy, a standard of decency in the face of nihilistic forces that doom our best efforts; Thomas McGuane, the awakening that comes with an appreciation of irony and the deep rightness of generosity; James Ellroy, it's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it.

Johnston now takes his place among these. Descent hinges on a small paragraph deep in the text, after a secondary character makes a surprise discovery and responds in a way that is entirely out of character:

He tugged at the hairs below his lip. He thought of the set of tire chains back at the barn hung on their spike with the horse tack. He sat for a few moments longer, sensing the rising dusk in the bowl of the gorge, in the shades of the pinewood. Then he said, "All right, son, let's see it," and he lifted his foot from the brake and drove on.

These spare lines motivate a careful reader to reconsider all he thinks he knows about this man and it is a mark of Johnston's skill that such radical divergence from type enhances rather than strains the narrative.

Because this is what Johnston instructs: Be careful what you think you know about a man because you may be blind-sided and confounded.

And this: how shall a man "be"?—This is how: keep your peace, reserve judgment, give people room, prepare to be disappointed - because sometimes you won't be, just the opposite, and therein lay the joy of existence.

Then again, we generally don't read fiction because we want to learn things, let alone be instructed. We read because we want to be entertained, elevated, enchanted. Sometimes we read because the prose is simply delicious, and looking forward to the next paragraph is like looking forward to something visceral, the touch of somebody beautiful or an exertion that makes you burn:

He drank. He smoked. The two men resumed their conversation, the older man monologuing low and steady, speaking about his wife, or his ex-wife, telling the younger man in the cap all the things he and the ex-wife had done in their marriage, good and bad. Billy ordered another drink and the man spoke about the things he would like to do to his ex-wife now, now that he was no longer blinded by love, and he said many graphic things he'd be sorry he said, Billy thought, if the woman ever turned up dead. If she wasn't dead already. He stirred his drink and drew the little double-barreled swizzle between his lips and sipped at the fizzing glass.

"It's like a man just goes along for years," the man said, "and he thinks he's living his life, he thinks he's a normal Joe living his life with a normal woman, but he ain't, he ain't, and one day he sits up in bed and he sees his life for what it really is. Sees his wife for what she really is. You know what I'm talking about, Steve?"

The younger man nodded.

"Right," Steve?

"Right," said the younger man, Steve.

The man lifted his beer, swallowed, set it down again. "Same thing as when I was in the service, Steve, which, as I said, I ain't at liberty to talk about. Five years of high-level shit and then, one day, boom, there I am, staring at myself in the mirror, covered in blood and no idea how or why. Same motherfucking day different motherfucking story."

Billy caught his own eye in the backbar mirror. He ain't never gonna stop, this old boy.

Well, I don't see the chain keeping you here.

But the seven-and-seven was smooth and he had the twenties in his pocket and he sat watching Louis wash out glasses and dry them and set them in their places, big pint glasses that in the old man's hands became abruptly, unbelievably smaller. When he came over to see if Billy wanted another, Billy ordered a beer just to watch the effect. He drank half the cold pint and then he stood up and walked to the men's room, and when he returned the talker was gone.

How does a writer come into such intimate and comfortable acquaintance with written English? It is tempting to say he is born this way or that he is gifted with verbal precocity and immersed young into the world's great writing and falls into fiction like math prodigies fall into astronomy or physics—but there is always an element unnamed, probably un-nameable, invisible in any treatment of mind and art. It's that sense of numinous possibility, expanse, and freedom that writers like Johnston create.

Behind them, for now, was Sean and the old green Chevy, and behind the Chevy was the lit and diminishing city and beyond the city were the high summits, undiminished by distance, and beyond these the sun was falling into the west but they did not see it—nor the mountains nor the city but only the darkening sky ahead and the climbing moon and the road, and it was a road as straight and flat and bare as any they'd ever seen and it raced away before them over the plains, hiding nothing.

 

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