Fiction that preys on our deepest fears or insecurities often seems indelicate. It stultifies our emotional responses and reactions rather than enlivening them. In what is a largely emotional medium, the hazards are obvious. But when done well, this sort of fiction can be among the most profound and interesting, to say nothing of the most emotionally resonant. Tim Johnston's second novel (and third work of fiction) is definitely a case of the latter.
"Descent" takes as its starting point the kidnapping of a young woman on vacation with her family in the Colorado Rockies. Though harrowing, her abduction becomes an almost secondary plotline, or at least one that provides as much torsion as it does tension. The real story is of the devastating effect her disappearance has on the rest of her family.
The Courtlands are already on fragile footing. Grant Courtland is a dedicated father but a suspect husband, and when his daughter, Caitlin, and son, Sean, head out for an early-morning adventure, Grant gives them his blessing. His wife, meanwhile, is cautious, and not only because the kids are just teenagers and the landscape around them is as forbidding as it is spectacular, but also because her marriage seems poised for collapse, thanks to Grant's regular indiscretions.
When Sean returns from his outing alone, the chaos of searching for a lost daughter in the wilds of Colorado sets each of the players on their own solitary course. Over time, Grant moves to Colorado where steadfast searching becomes his life's work, supplemented by odd jobs. Angela, Grant's wife, heads back to Wisconsin and resumes what's left of her life without Grant and Caitlin. Sean splits his time between his parents before he lights out on his own. Caitlin, meanwhile, suffers her imprisoner in the high mountains. Four lives, ripped apart and sent wheeling in different directions. Years pass in breathless pages, and what began as the mystery of a disappearance becomes something much more like Shakespearean tragedy.
Johnston is a meticulous and careful storyteller, a true craftsman, which is perhaps not surprising considering his career as a carpenter. But don't be fooled by his blue-collar biography. Though "Descent" is put together with plumb lines and a sturdy foundation, it's more than obvious that Johnston is as comfortable with the architecture and design as he is with the hammer and nails. The result of his talents is an incredibly powerful, richly atmospheric and emotionally complicated novel about the way a family can fall apart, and be put back together again.
Peter Geye is a novelist who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three kids.