2015 may be young, but Tim Johnston's Descent has positioned itself as an early frontrunner for year-end best-of lists. The surprise bestseller's plot is straight-up thriller: On the eve of daughter Caitlin's departure for college, the Courtlands drive into the Rocky Mountains for one last true family vacation--with the parents Grant and Angel desperately hoping that the setting will repair their faltering marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother set out on a morning run, only Sean returns, and with a badly broken leg. Caitlin has disappeared into the mountains by way of a stranger's car.
The wilderness that was to be a place of new beginnings has become a character of its own, looming over the family and alive with jagged spires and forbidding forest, accelerant to the family's terror, grief, and self-doubt. Johnston not only pulls off this transition, but elevates his story with believable characters, impeccable pacing, and prose that serves up palpable tension, as well as serving the book's literary aspirations. This all sounds a bit hyperbolic (mixed-metaphor-inspiring, even), but Descent is that good.
Of course, this isn't the first tale to use Nature as a key player, so we asked author Johnston for his own list of books featuring wilderness as an active force.
Environment as Character: Five Essential Novels
by Tim Johnston
The Rocky Mountains are more than a kind of character in Descent; they are the book's essential and ruling antagonist. For the Courtlands, the book's four protagonists, the realization that the mountains are not the picturesque American playground they've driven up from the plains to enjoy, comes too late, and after their 18-year-old daughter vanishes, the family sees the Rockies for what they really are, which is the same boundless, pathless, godforsaken place into which a great number of Americans far hardier than themselves once vanished forever. Thereafter this landscape becomes so much more than majestic, astounding, or even otherworldly; it become sinister. It becomes a world of malicious intent, no less cruel or comprehensible from one day to the next.
Deliveranceby James Dickey
A wild Appalachian river pulses through this novel like the story's own jugular vein, but its finest passage is when Ed must climb above the river, in the darkness, on a sheer face of rock. With superhuman attention to detail, Dickey transforms Ed into a being a pure sensation, and transforms the reader into Ed. You do not breathe. You do not dare look down.
The Shipping Newsby Annie Proulx
Life-battered Quoyle washes up on the shores of Newfoundland and is marooned among a citizenry as hard and wind-scoured as the rock they call home. The image that stands out and represents both the outer and inner landscapes is the ancestral Quoyle homestead that is kept from being blown off its cliff into the sea by guy wires that cry like furies in the wind.
The Roadby Cormac McCarthy
Having once sent me, in Blood Meridian, into a 19th Century American West before it was transformed by expansionist violence and the industrial revolution, McCarthy now immerses me in an America far down the road of its self-destruction, a lightless, ash-buried, bone-chilling world that is by far the most desolate he's ever conjured"”and yet also includes a single heartening, and heartbreaking, flame of love.
Plainsongby Kent Haruf
Here is McCarthy's Wild West in the modern era, as arid and unforgiving as ever, but populated now by a less violent and somehow more resilient breed of American"”in particular two old-as-Moses brothers who go out day after bitter day to tend to their cattle and who find themselves, all of the sudden, surrogate fathers to one young woman who needs shelter from the harsh world. The title evokes the spirit and the artistry of the book: Plainsong.
Islands in the Streamby Ernest Hemingway
The opening pages so beautifully evoke Thomas Hudson's house that the reader cannot miss that the description is really about the man himself, his heart and his soul as we find them at the novel's outset. Likewise, as Tom suffers heartbreaking loss, the novel moves into a harrowing tale of the hunt for German U-boats in the Florida Keys, and those waters come to represent the dangers that lurk beneath every human heart that dares to open itself to love.
Descent is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.