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'Descent' Is A Twisty Thriller-Plus

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straight-forward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick's about the whaling industry.

A good genre writer might have turned this into a conventional suspense novel, making us worry about the missing girl with every page that goes by — but Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. I worried about the missing girl with every page, yes. But I also suffered every torment felt by her family, father, mother, brother, and those linked to the family. So this is a thriller plus!

My heart's still pounding even now as I'm trying to describe the novel, recalling just about every turn and twist of the action, remembering how engaged I was, and how surprised I felt at just how far Johnston could wander from the main premise and still keep me with him.

When 18-year-old track star Caitlin gets abducted, she leaves behind a younger brother lying on the ground, his leg shattered by her attacker, a stranger in yellow-tinted sunglasses — and her parents back down in their motel room. Brother, mother, father suffer terribly as the search for Caitlin ensues. Months go by, and then years, while we see each of them, in a number of well-made scenes, undergo transformations of one kind or another: The brother becomes a shattered young man, as splintered in personality as he is in body.

The mother, already unsteady because of family casualties early in her life, drifts away into anomie. The father dedicates most of his waking hours to shadowing the police investigation and subsequent, apparently fruitless search for Caitlin, even as he finds other things pulling at the coat sleeve of his attention. "In his chest were two hearts, two thudding fists," Johnston writes. "One heart beat with the memories of his daughter, and the other beat with the sight of his son. ... Each the more furiously in the presence of the other."

The story, in its extension and breadth, has a similar effect on the reader — or at least it did on me. We suffer Caitlin's absence and the intensity of the family's distress and despair in scene after scene, from Colorado to their home state of Wisconsin. Gradually some light filters in, black light really at first, when after more than a hundred pages — and over a year for the family — we get a glimpse of Caitlin, imprisoned high in the mountains by her abductor.

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this. Descent doesn't work against the conventions of the thriller. It does, as I've already suggested, enlarge the effects of those conventions and broaden the scope of the miseries and perils attendant on the crime itself, making everyone, including the reader, the victims of a psychopath's fantasy.

The plot moves with steadiness toward an act of chance which the mad man himself celebrates. And ironically, that act leads to a powerful and completely unexpected turn toward the end of the novel, something he calls "dumb luck."

"People want to believe in some plan, or design," he says, having just put a bullet into one of Caitlin's would-be rescuers, "when all around them is the evidence that the whole world is nothing but dumb luck. Going back to the first cells in the ocean. Going back to the stars."

That's the madman's point of view. Fortunately for us, an excellent writer like Tim Johnston used his writer's luck — the opposite of dumb — to figure and refigure a conventional story in a forceful new way. You'll want to set this one down so you can take a breath, and pick it up and keep reading — all at the same time.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.