Tim Johnston’s latest novel has an unusual take on the parent’s-worst-nightmare scenario of child abduction. He doesn’t focus so much on the abductee, Caitlin Courtland, but instead on what Caitlin’s disappearance does to the men in her life.
Caitlin is snatched while the family is on vacation in the Rockies; they’re there partially because it’s a great place for Caitlin, a champion high school runner, to train. The disaster shatters the family almost at once, but things were shaky for the Courtlands even before the kidnapping. Dad Grant was unfaithful to his wife, Angela. Dudley adored his older sister, even though she teased him for being fat and unambitious. Still, both he and Grant are guilt-ridden for not being able to protect her.
Johnston’s women are tangential, but not because he’s one of those male writers who can’t write credible women. With the exception of Angela, who falls to pieces and stays that way for pretty much the whole book, the women are fairly strong, intelligent and well-rounded. Caitlin, during the brief time we see her, is a powerhouse. But it’s the men who demand answers; Caitlin’s abduction is an affront to their manhood, even if they never knew her. They speak in bursts of terse but beautifully rendered dialogue and their thoughts are just as circumspect. Johnston’s equally spare, alluring descriptions of the landscape, the weather, geriatric cars and trucks, farm equipment and firearms recall Annie Proulx.
Both suspenseful and sorrowful, Descent explores what it means to be a man—a husband, a father, a brother, a son, an officer of the law—in an uncertain time.