The Descent of Manby Kevin Desinger
One night Jim, a quiet wine steward, wakes to find two men trying to steal his car. Against the petitions of his wife, he goes outside to get the plate number of the thieves’ truck. Instead, something comes over him and he drives away in their truck until he recovers his wits and realizes what he’s done. When Jim learns that the two would-be thieves
One night Jim, a quiet wine steward, wakes to find two men trying to steal his car. Against the petitions of his wife, he goes outside to get the plate number of the thieves’ truck. Instead, something comes over him and he drives away in their truck until he recovers his wits and realizes what he’s done. When Jim learns that the two would-be thieves are brothers with a history of violence, he soon finds himself over his head in a mire of sinister events and must risk everything to regain what he can of his life before that night.
“There are books that you can’t put down, and there are books that won’t go away even after you put them down, the force of their moral conundrums haunting the stories of our own lives. The Descent of Man is a spectacular showcase for both literary virtuesthe riveting tale of a modest but perfect life under assault, and a resonating challenge to our own self-knowledge, the authenticity of that knowledge, which can only be confirmed through crisis.
Who are we when push comes to shove? What are we capable of? Do we have the fortitude to save ourselves from the bad things in the world, and the backbonethe strength of mind and spiritto protect those we love from harm? Kevin Desinger confronts us with these questions in the steady, quiet voice of Everyman, a decent guy sitting in a parlor chair, calmly narrating a firestorm that’s consuming his house and family. He has written a novel that is flawless, masterful, unforgettable, and chilling in its dramatization of the way we live in fragile grace each day in America, our blessings balanced on the edge of violence and loss.” Bob Shacochis
"Give one of Harlan Coben's everyday heroes a conscience, a wine cellar and a sensitive wife, and there you have Jim."The Oregonian
“[A] lively debut suspenseful.”Publishers Weekly
"There are books that you can't put down, and there are books that won't go away even after you put them down, the force of their moral conundrums haunting the stories of our own lives. The Descent of Man is a spectacular showcase for both literary virtues--the riveting tale of a modest but perfect life under assault flawless, masterful, unforgettable, and chilling in its dramatization of the way we live in fragile grace each day in America, our blessings balanced on the edge of violence and loss." Bob Shacochis
“Kevin Desinger’s harrowing first novel . . offers a meditation on the struggle between thought and action . . . Desinger’s fumbling hero is swept along by the same pensive indecision that carried Hamlet to his grisly end . . but, unlike Hamlet, emerges from the shadows changed. . . . and shows us not only the terrifying consequences but perhaps also the sobering necessity of indulging our inner darkness.”Portland Monthly
“As you read this book you will find yourself repeatedly asking, ‘What would I do?’ The story is thought-provoking and real . . . You will keep turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next and you won’t be able to put it down . . . this was a wonderful read.”Elizabeth Provenzano, Tulsa Books Examiner
“This is a fascinating story about how one decision can alter life forever.”The Portland Book Review
“This ingeniously plotted first novel holds many surprises, not least of which is Jim’s ability to dial back his civilized persona, revealing the feral creature who emerges when his family is threatened terrific.”Booklist
“A thoughtful literary thriller, a good read for people who might avoid thrillers because they often contain clichéd dialogue, situations, or charactersDesinger’s book is free of these faults.”Newwest.net
“As compelling as a whodunit mystery and will satisfy those readers attracted to smart, adrenaline-inducing plot, but the real heart of the book lies in the backstory about Jim and his wife and the trials they go through to answer the question: what is enough for a marriage? Only when their quiet existence is threatened do they each realize their value to each other.
Kevin Desinger’s seemingly effortless ability to juggle the past and the present serves the book well, and his subtle treatment of brutality is masterful. Desinger brings his readers to desperation and back, and we willingly follow; whether he’s describing violence, wine, or love, his hand is steady and beckoning.”ForeWord Magazine
"The Descent of Man could be used as Exhibit A in how to write a taut plot-driven story. The story catches you from the opening line and just never lets you go. If you’re looking for a fast beach read, look no further. . . What makes The Descent of Man a good read is that Jim’s actions and every decision seem so very plausible. It’s almost as if this could happen to each one of us. As his life spins out of control, it’s hard not to feel some relief in knowing it’s not you in that situation . . . a page-turner."MostlyFiction
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Read an Excerpt
THE DESCENT OF MAN
By KEVIN DESINGER
UNBRIDLED BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kevin Desinger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA truck with its lights out idled in the street. White steam pulsed from the tailpipe and drifted of}; but the truck made no sound. From our bedroom window I could make out the motionless shapes of two men on either side of the truck, facing each other. They both turned toward our house, but I was able to step back before they looked up to the second floor, where I stood in the dark. I recalled having been awakened by a clank like you hear from a distant game of horseshoes, but not why it had drawn me to the window. Marla slept on, but she can sleep through anything.
When I peered out again, both figures were standing together on the near side of the truck. They were studying our car. Even after I realized that the sound had come from a piece of steel striking the pavement, an element of disbelief kept me from piecing together what was happening. My sleepy forty-year-old brain plodded through the stages of cognizance, from seeing to understanding. In college philosophy I had learned the difference between immediate and mediate perception. Immediate: two guys. Mediate: I recognize them as two guys. The first is simply the mechanism of my eves discerning shapes in the visual field; the second is my brain making sense of the shapes. Both stages happen at the speed of thought—the first perhaps even faster because it happens before thinking interferes. Either I'd skipped the next class or we hadn't covered a third stage of perception (maybe making sense of the action), but it took what seemed like forever: Two guys are stealing our car. The fourth stage, let's call it self-awareness, quickly followed: I'm standing here like an idiot watching two steal our car.
I pulled on a pair of jeans, a work shirt, and my running shoes. Almost as an afterthought I woke Marla. There was enough light for me to see her sit up and rub her eyes like a little girl.
"What time is it?"
I grabbed the handset of our cordless phone from the nightstand and pushed it into her hands. "Call the cops! Two guys are stealing our car."
She reached for her bedside lamp. I said, "No light!"
Now fully wakened by the urgency in my tone, she forced the phone back on me. "You call the cops." Then, "Why are you dressed?"
"I'm going outside to get the plate number of their truck."
"No, you're not!"
"I want to make sure we get these guys."
"Jim, please. They might have guns."
She had a point, but I gave her the phone again. "If the cops get here in time there won't be anything to worry about." I felt around in my nightstand drawer for the notepad and pencil I keep there and slid them into my shirt pocket. Then I said, "Keep away from the window."
As I slipped out the back door my hands felt strangely empty, so I detoured to grab a two-foot length of old galvanized pipe from a pile of plumbing scrap I kept meaning to recycle. The pipe made me feel safer, but I also felt an unfamiliar anger. This was a new experience for me, even in our modest neighborhood, where rashes of break-ins occurred now and then but were quickly stopped, and where our middle-aged Camry was about the nicest car on the block. The pipe felt natural in my fist.
Our neighbors to the left are tidy people who don't own a dog, and I was able to find my way easily and quietly across their backyard and around the far side of their house to the street. There's a streetlight two houses down on the near-side parking strip and another farther up the block: otherwise it's porch lights. I started across the street, glancing toward the two guys breaking into our car. They had their backs to me.
Keeping behind the parked cars, I worked my way toward the idling truck. I could see through the windows of the cars, but not well enough to read the plate number. The truckmdash;which I could hear now, its engine's deep, covert burble—had both doors open a foot or so, maybe to provide a quick exit if the thieves had to abort. One of them was in the driver's seat of our Camry, and the other was leaning over the half-open door. I kept moving up the sidewalk until the truck was between them and me. As I crouched down, gripping the corroded pipe, my anger grew as if it were being released at a molecular level into my hand. It spread up my arm and shoulder and concentrated in my chest.
Something in the Camry broke with a loud snap, and one of the car thieves swore. At the same time something in me snapped too. Without thinking I crossed the few feet of open street and slipped into the cab of the truck. I placed the pipe on the passenger seat, pulled the shifter into "drive," and hit the gas. The truck lurched up Juniper. I couldn't bring myself to look anywhere but the street ahead. I shut my door, then made the long reach across the bench seat to close the passenger door. Keeping my eyes on the road, I felt around on the dashboard for the headlights switch and pulled it on. The cab smelled like a riverside tavern: cigarettes, sweat, mildew, and beer.
A rising sound of sirens triggered a tightness in my chest, as if the cops were after me instead of the car thieves. I pulled on the seatbelt shoulder strap and tried to keep calm, to drive as if this were my truck. My arms were shaking, and the tightness spread to my stomach. Flashing blue and white lights came into view, and a cop car rushed past me Faster than I'd ever seen a car travel on a residential street.
The light at Fulton let me into heavier traffic heading west toward the river. I didn't want to cross the bridge into downtown, so I took a side road near the railroad yard and eventually entered an unfamiliar industrial area. It was randomly lit in yellow and brown tints, deserted as the moon. Half a mile later I realized what had happened: I had taken a vehicle from two car thieves at the same time that the}, ,,ere trying to take ours! I couldn't decide whether it was irony, poetic justice, or just dumb luck.
I slowed alongside a stretch of hurricane fencing with railroad tracks on the other side and found myself laughing convulsively. The only thing that kept me from choking on this strangely gripping laughter was when I finally thought about the cops talking to Marla, working their way around to a question that should have occurred to me earlier: And where is your husband now?
At this thought I accelerated and cranked the wheel hard to the right; the truck dove into the ditch, collapsing the right front fender and killing the engine. The impact caused the pipe to roll from the seat to the floor, and at the same time my chest hit the horn, which gave a weak bleat. Then everything was still.
I pulled out my handkerchief and began to wipe my fingerprints off everything I had touched. My hands had the adrenaline shakes, so I worked with care. Covering my hand with the handkerchief, I turned off the lights and ignition and let the keys drop to the floor. Then I picked up the length of pipe and tossed it onto the road.
Stepping down from the cab, I rolled my ankle on a stone the size of a softball. I grabbed the stone and slammed it onto the hood of the truck. The sound was satisfying in a primal way. Shouting with each blow, I swung the stone again and again, leaving a lot of dimples but no real damage. I hurled the stone over the hurricane fence, then picked up the pipe and went after the windows. They exploded into tiny, glittering cubes. I got all four: front, driver's side, back, and passenger. Then around again for the mirrors and lights. When I stopped, my tension was gone.
I stood back to look at the damage and recalled my interest in the license-plate number, which was why I had gone outside in the first place. Now I might be able to use it to learn the owner's name and address, and maybe his criminal record. Feeling for my pen and notepad, I walked around to the back of the truck and found the license plate in its bumper recess behind the tow ball. Then I realized that the registration papers—if I could find them—would be even better.
I went over to the passenger door and reached with the handkerchief through the broken window to open the glove box. Sure enough, inside was a tire warranty envelope holding several folded sheets of paper. I took it all. After wiping my prints from the glove-box lid, I folded the envelope and shoved it into my wallet pocket. I picked up the length of pipe and started walking toward home but stopped before the first curve for one last look. There is a deadness to a vehicle with no glass. It seemed likely that the truck belonged to the thieves, but if not—if they had been cruising around in something stolen, something that couldn't be traced back to them—I could see how I might be held responsible for it ending up in a ditch, all battered up.
Around the curve and another hundred yards up the next straight stretch, I came to a vacant lot surrounded by thick brambles. The narrow gravel entry crossed a culvert half choked with silt. Using the pipe, I poked my handkerchief deep into the culvert, and then, with a two-hand hurl, I sent the pipe rotating into the brush at the back of the lot. Now only the envelope tied me to the truck.
There was enough ambient light to illuminate some of the vacant lot, though most of it was dark. The gravel was strewn with bottles and pieces of wood and rusted metal. I found a scrap of plywood the size of a cutting board and slipped the envelope beneath it, then left the lot and started again for home. I had no idea whether the cops would think I was a good guy or a bad guy. Perhaps, like myself, they would have a mixed opinion.
A couple miles from home I started jogging. I had to work up a story for the cops, and it was becoming apparent that my running—my having run—could only help. If nothing else, I could say I was worried about Marla. Which was true. And this concern might tip me toward being a good guy, help me atone for abandoning her in the first place, then making her wait so long for my return.
I opened up and ran hard. My feet found a rhythm, but there was nothing natural about it. I ran until my side began to ache. When I stopped to catch my breath, my pulse pounded in my face. My clothes were damp with sweat. The stitch in my side receded, and I started walking again.
I didn't want to admit to Marla that I had taken the truck. It had been foolish and impulsive, and nothing in her sense of social order allowed for such an act. She would be torqued that I had disappeared for whatever reason; I should have stayed and called the cops and let things take their course. This is why civilized people pay taxes and have insurance. The premiums and deductibles are small prices to pay for protection.
But this is a male quandary: If we just stand there and watch we feel like idiots; but (depending of course on what we do) we can also feel like idiots for having acted. There might be a narrow window of involvement that can keep us from feeling like idiots, but in the moment we can't know whether our course of action will make us appear heroes or fools.
Approaching Fulton, I started jogging as if on my wake-up run. I wasn't wearing sweats, but you see this now and then, guys jogging in their street clothes. While the light was red I ran in place, trying to appear concerned about keeping my heart rate up, working on my breathing. At this ridiculous hour. It must have been two or two thirty. Well, you see this too, the lone jogger at night because his job has him on an odd schedule.
Any situation offers choices (this being part of my explanation to Marla), and I was tired of hearing about guys stealing cars and taking a slap on the wrist for it. If the courts couldn't solve the problem, maybe it should be up to the citizens. I knew this argument had holes in it—vigilantism being the most obvious—but maybe holes were good; maybe they would distract her from my having been gone so long.
I was in our neighborhood, a dozen blocks from home. I still couldn't figure out why I had taken the truck. Usually I make the right decision—the civilized decision—but between sneaking closer to look at the plate number and finding myself in the truck, I'd had a glitch in my decision-making process. Maybe this was the way to look at it: I had followed an instinct because none of my self-preserving or ethical governors had been activated. In this sense taking the truck may have been the natural thing to do.
I wondered if there was something in me, perhaps in all guys, that sparked bad decisions and got us into trouble. Something that ten thousand years ago had gotten us out of trouble but over the ages had become obsolete and, as we became more civilized, illegal. The call of the wild. Tapping the feral side of the brain. Eliminating the brain.
I had been gone a long time. An hour? No, probably not an hour but longer than a half hour. Let's say forty-five minutes. I should have been gone five minutes total and gotten back before the cops arrived. I was forty minutes late and not home yet.
Walking faster again, I wondered what had happened to the thieves. It didn't seem possible for them to have taken our Camry—they hadn't gotten the engine started before I'd driven off in their truck, and the cops had come so soon afterward. Most likely they had tried to get away on foot.
What if they had eluded the cops? I looked up the street and saw a hundred hiding places. But no, if the car thieves were still at large, cop cars would still be in the area.
It bothered me to think I might have destroyed an innocent person's vehicle. Maybe their insurance would cover them for the loss. But if I were held responsible, given the situation and my clean record, perhaps the worst that would come of it would be some kind of fine and probation (basically a slap on the wrist). The owner of the truck would collect on the insurance, minus the deductible, which I would gladly pay. In fact, I would insist.
I was at 40th and Juniper, looking two blocks down toward our house. All was quiet. Still, I didn't want to be seen arriving from the direction in which the truck had gone, so I trotted over to Cedar, then turned west, paralleling Juniper until I was behind the Ferguson house, which faces ours. Their garage and fence blocked my view, so I continued up to the next corner and turned toward Juniper; a moment later I was home.
It was as if nothing had happened. Our car sat there alone, unlocked. I looked in through the passenger-door window and saw that the ignition switch cover had been torn away.
This was when I came up with my story for the cops. It would be the truth up to where I had been on the far side of the street, maneuvering into position to look at the rear plate. And then one of the guys spotted me, and I panicked and ran. I hid for a while, trying to calm down. I didn't know how long (I would explain), but I might have been followed, so I stayed hidden.... No, I didn't see what happened to the truck because the guy chased me the other way.
Them: But they say no one chased you.
Me: They're lying.
Them: They don't have any reason to lie ... at least about chasing you.
Me: Neither do I.
Them: You would if you took the truck.
Me: If I what?
I would have to practice my surprised indignation.
* * *
I found Marla in the kitchen, calmer than I'd thought she would be. Calmer but not exactly relaxed. She was in her jeans and robe now, leaning against the sink, impossible to read.
"So where did you go?"
I said, "One of the guys came at me, and I ran."
"No, you didn't, you big fat liar. You stole their truck." She was incredulous and amused but definitely torqued. She said, "I stood there and watched you, okay? You stole the truck, so again, where did you go?"
"I told you not to look out the window."
"And I told you not to go outside. The next thing I know you're stealing a truck!"
"It wasn't stealing."
"Are you kidding me? In what world?"
I said, "You're right. I'm sorry. I .just drove." I looked down, trying to work out how to tell her what had happened. A glint of light on my wrist caught my eye—a crumb of glass riding among the hairs. I picked it out and dropped it into the wastebasket beside the refrigerator. I said, "I didn't have a plan. When I realized the cops would ask where I was—" I suddenly saw the distinction between the three phrases the truth, the whole truth, and nothing lint the truth. I would tell her the truth, and nothing but the truth, but she wasn't getting the whole truth. The problem was that I would have to wing it in terms of what I kept from her. I was too disorganized to have a plan, any more than I'd had a plan when I'd taken the truck. It had been a mistake not to brush myself off, shake out my clothes and hair for bits of glass from the windows. But this brings us back to our quandary: If we wait until we've thought of everything, we don't do anything. I would still be standing at the staircase window, now staring at the space where our car had been parked. "Well," I said, "I drove it into a ditch and hustled back here."
Excerpted from THE DESCENT OF MAN by KEVIN DESINGER Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Desinger. Excerpted by permission of UNBRIDLED BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Kevin Desinger graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before moving to Portland where he wrote for the Willamette Week, the Oregonian and a number of regional publications. An earlier short story appeared in The Missouri Review. This is his first novel.
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This book was spellbinding! I made the mistake of beginning the final third of the book shortly before bedtime. Not only was it so creepy that I kept glancing around my darkened room as I read, but it was so riveting that I had to keep reading and reading and reading until the wee hours of the morning. So definitely buy this book. But don't start the later chapters anywhere near your bedtime-unless you, too, want to be reading at 3 A.M.
Not your usual who-dunnit run of the mill mystery. Could happen to you! Jim, a wine steward, quickly gets in over his head in this spell-binding mystery. A good read!