by Tim Johnston


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“Read this astonishing novel . . . The magic of his prose equals the horror of Johnston’s story.” —The Washington Post

The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, who are taking a family vacation before their daughter leaves for college. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic.

Written with a precision that captures every emotion, every moment of fear, as each member of the family searches for answers, Descent races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion. 

“A compelling thriller that is both creepy and literary . . . Descent is not just a mystery. It is an emotional story of evil, fear, acceptance and irony.”—The Denver Post

“What makes the novel unforgettable is its sense of character, its deliberate, unadorned prose and Johnston’s unflinching exploration of human endurance, physical and psychological.” —Miami Herald

“A super-charged, addictive read.” —The Missourian               

“An original and psychologically deep thriller.” —Outside magazine

“Outstanding . . . The days when you had to choose between a great story and a great piece of writing? Gone.” —Esquire

“[A] dazzling debut . . . Exquisitely crafted.”  —The Dallas Morning News 

“Incredibly powerful, richly atmospheric.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune 

“[An] engulfing thriller-cum-western.” —The New York Times Book Review 

“Brilliant . . . As gripping as any Everest expedition.” —Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616204778
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 58,478
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Tim Johnston, a native of Iowa City, is the author of The Current and the New York Times bestseller Descent, as well as a young adult novel, Never So Green, and the story collection Irish Girl, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

Read an Excerpt

THE PHONE IN his hand was ringing. For how long? He read the screen with illogical dread.

“It’s Sean,” he said, and his wife said nothing.

THEY'D LEFT THE aspens and stepped into a high, intense sunlight, their shadows thrown back on the blacktop. The morning had burned away. The air was sere and smelled of weeping sap and of the brown, desiccated needles. They’d unfolded the map and tried to get their bearings. In a moment, and for the first time that day, they heard an engine, and then a gaining thump-beat of music, and above them at the curve there banked into view a truck, or a jeep, or something in between, some mountain breed they didn’t know, and it was coming and Caitlin said, “Get over here,” and Sean crabwalked himself and the bike into the scrub growth and wildflowers while the strange vehicle, all sunlight and bass, veered wide of them. In the window was a face, a man’s jaw, yellow lenses fixing on them for a long moment before the jeep-thing passed on and, reaching the crest of the road, dropped away, body and engine and music and all.

They’d set off again then, and when they came around the bend there was another road, unpaved, intersecting the blacktop at an oblique angle like an X, and without hesitating and without consulting him, Caitlin simply took it. And although the road was unmarked, and although it appeared as though it would take them higher up rather than down, he said nothing. Later, he would think about that. He would remember the shrine of the woods. The graves. He would see the Virgin’s face and her mutilated blessing and he would remember thinking they should pray before her just the same, like the right reverend said, just in case. Forty days was forty days. But Caitlin had already been on the path, moving toward the road. She was wearing a white sleeveless top, white shorts with the word "Badgers" bannered in cherry red across her bottom, pink and white Adidas, and for a moment, in that place, she had looked not like herself but like some blanched and passing spirit. A cold wanderer around whom the air chilled and the birds shuddered and the leaves of the aspens yellowed and fell.
HE RAISED THE phone and said, “Hello, Sean,” and a man’s voice said, “Is this Mr. Courtland?” and Grant’s head jerked as if struck.

“Yes. Who is this?”

At these words, the change in his body, Angela came around to see his face. He met her eyes and looked away, out the window. The man on the phone identified himself in some detail, but all Grant heard was the word sheriff.

“What’s happened?” he asked. “Where’s Sean?” There was a pain in his forearm and he looked to see the white claw fastened there. He pried at it gently.

“He’s here at the medical center in Granby, Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “He’s a tad banged up, but the doctor says he’ll be fine. I found his wallet and this phone in his--”

“What do you mean a tad--” He glanced at Angela and stopped himself. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean it looks like he got himself in some kind of accident up there on the mountain, Mr. Courtland. I ain’t had a chance to talk to him yet, they doped him up pretty good for the . . . Well, you can talk to the doctor in a second here. But first--”

“But he’s all right,” Grant said.

“Oh, his leg’s banged up pretty good. But he was wearing that helmet. He’ll be all right. He had some good luck up there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he could of laid there a lot longer, but it happened some folks come by on their bikes.”

Grant’s heart was hammering in his skull. He couldn’t think--his son lying there, up there, on the mountain, hurt--

“Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Where are you all at?”

There was something in the man’s tone. Grant shook his head. “What do you mean?”

“Well, sir. We found your boy way up there on the mountain, on a rental bike. So I’m just wondering, sir, where you’re at.”

“Caitlin,” Angela said suddenly, and Grant’s heart leapt and he said, “Yes. Let me speak to my daughter. Let me speak to Caitlin.”

“Your daughter . . . ?” said the other man, then was silent. In the silence was the sound of his breathing. The sound of him making an adjustment to his sheriff ’s belt. The sound of a woman’s voice paging unintelligibly down the empty hospital corridor.

When he spoke again he sounded like some other man altogether.

“Mr. Courtland,” he said, and Grant stepped toward the window as though he would walk through it. He’d taken the representations of the mountains on the resort maps, with their colorful tracery of runs and trails and lifts, as the mountains themselves--less mountains than playgrounds fashioned into the shapes of mountains by men and money. Now he saw the things themselves, so green and massive, humped one upon the other like a heaving sea. Angela stopped him physically, her thumbs in his biceps. She raised on her toes that she might hear every word. “Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Your son came in alone.”


Can You Write a Novel while You Build a House?

I caught the writing bug during my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, and although I'd been born and raised in that storied little city (Flannery, Stegner, Vonnegut!), or because of that, when I got the chance to pursue my MFA in faraway New England (New England — it sounded like another country!), I grabbed it. Three years later, with a few published stories, my first literary agent, and my degree in hand, I left UMass, Amherst, and began hitting things with a hammer.

I was twenty-four then, and I've spent nearly as many of the following years hitting things with a hammer, and so I've had plenty of time to shape — and re-shape, and sand, and varnish, and start all over again from scratch — the answer to the question so many people think to ask, which in its essence goes, What is the relationship between writing and carpentry?

Whenever I hear this question I get the feeling the asker already has a pretty good idea about the answer, but wants to hear me say it — wants to hear me assemble in the space between us any number of nifty metaphors, as if the question were intended to provoke a live demonstration of my mastery of both crafts at once.

In both cases, I might say, one begins with nothing — raw materials — and works at his creation day by day, brick by brick.

The tools in the toolbox must be sharp, most of all an eye for detail.

Both kinds of craftsmen must possess great patience and a love of the process itself.

They must return again and again to the lessons of the masters.

They must be expert in the strength of materials and fluent in the language of grain.

They must long to make out of nothing something beautiful and lasting . . .

I might give that kind of answer, but I don't. Instead I begin to talk about the writer/carpenter brain: What happens when its work is split between one form of creating and the other — a productive, a beneficial split, yes or no?

Going strictly on personal and in no way scientifically proven experience, I say that even though writing fiction and building things would seem to be rooted in a common lobe of brain — the creative, making-stuff lobe — they actually are not, because the two processes are not reciprocal.

Example: I have had many fictional stories announce, repair, or finish themselves in my brain while I was engaged physically in carpentry — planing, sanding, shaping some piece of wood — but I have never once thought of the solution to a carpentry challenge while sitting at my desk writing fiction.

Which is not to say that carpentry is not mentally demanding: there is a reason for that old carpenter's saw, Measure twice, cut once. Carpentry often calls for extensive, brain-hurting calculations, an error in which can mean more than wasted time; it can cost big money for you, the boss, the client. (Not to mention: power tools, and the cost of operating them with less than your full attention.)

As a writer you may spend longer than you wanted to on a paragraph, or you may end up throwing out hundreds of pages, but no time spent writing is wasted time.

But in carpentry there is also a kind of zone, or Zen-ness that does not have its counterpart in writing. The carpenter, as he or she becomes more masterful, also becomes less conscious, more at ease with hands and tools, more automatic, and it's this not-quite-mindless state of being, of functioning, that creates the mental space for the scene, or story, or novel to take up shop in the carpenter's brain.

The inverse is not true. Although there are days when the writing seems to flow as if from some wide-open valve, it is never, ever mindless. Writing uses the whole brain, the juicy upfront parts and the deep-down crannies too, and often the writer doesn't even know what's he or she's created until much, much later.

By now the asker of the writing/carpentry question has drifted away, probably more than mentally, wondering why I didn't just talk about how writing a book is like building a house.

Lately — since the publication of Descent, actually - - I've been answering this question with a story, a very short one, about a carpenter who one day packed up all his tools and drove his truck high into the Rocky Mountains to do the finish work on a house his father had built up there. The carpenter wasn't going to try to write up there; he was just going to be a carpenter. And so he worked, week after week, all alone, doing good work, doing masterful work, and six months later when he packed up his tools again and came down from the mountains, the house was beautiful, artful, finished . . . and he had the first 200 pages of a new novel in his hands.

Next question?

—Tom Johnson

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Descent: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I decided to read this book after hearing a review on NPR. The book is about an 18 year old girl who gets abducted while on vacation with her family. But, what the book is really about is the effects the abduction has on the remaining family members. Tim Johnston is a great storyteller who genuinely makes your feel for all of the very well developed characters in the book. I couldn't put this book down and I was sorry when it was over.
erniedigregorio More than 1 year ago
or those of us who read thrillers to be transported into a different world, but yearn constantly for a more deeply involving story because there is true wisdom and heart in it, we can rejoice in Tim Johnston's amazing new novel. It has villains and heroes but sometimes they are the same person. No character is one-dimensional; several have 5. These are all real people, even the ones with minor roles. Most of the main characters are family members stuck in a real-life nightmare and struggling to make their way through it with no hope of waking up from it. Just slogging through tragedy while trying to avoid being completely estranged from the parts of their life that remain intact. We speak of a shattered life but of course life isn't shattered... it isn't destroyed like a broken glass. It continues on, sometimes forcing us to live a life more difficult than any sane person would ever choose. Whether you survive that with other relationships intact, or the nightmare destroys you, is part of Johnston's suspense here. It's involving because you can't foresee how the story ends, and you care about these people--not just one or two but every character in the book. And it's heartwarming because the human spirit does mostly find a way to survive. But perhaps most importantly, it reminds us why we read.... to learn about the human condition--about life--and be uplifted by the knowledge and the shared experience. The beauty of Tim Johnston's language and his obvious mastery of the story-telling craft helps to move us but the real heart comes from his wisdom and insight and empathy. We're glad we entered his world because we can tell a good man wrote this book.
quaintinns More than 1 year ago
I am utterly speechless! DESCENT has to be made into a movie, and I want a front row seat. Tim Johnston delivers an extraordinary "work of art", narrated by an award-winning performance of Xe Sands and R.C. Bray. One of the best books of the year, and assured to win numerous awards. Where to begin? Grant and Angela are making their way to the Rockies, for a last family vacation, to Colorado and the great outdoors, before eighteen year old Caitland, an avid runner goes off to college (track scholarship), along with younger brother Sean. While mom and dad are at the motel having sex, the brother/sister take off to the hills on their adventure. However, when a tragic accident occurs; Sean is hit by a car while on his bike; with no cell phone reception, Caitland is frantic as her brother needs help. They find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. When a stranger comes along and agrees to take her down the mountain in order to call her parents and seek help; a family's nightmare begins and none of their lives will ever be the same. This is one sick twisted guy. An emotional and intense journey, as slowly each member of the family falls apart, one by one. Each blames the other, feels guilt, and unable to console one another. There are emotional wounds even from the past, prior to the tragedy. When no clues turn up, or a body, Grant thinks Angela needs to return home to Wisconsin. She has depression problems and withdraws. Grant stays in Colorado, helping another older man (this story is quite humorous), at times. Sean wants to escape and takes off in his dad's truck and crosses the country with one problem after another. (this guy cannot catch a break). He is fearless and wants to help everyone, since he cannot help his sister. Finally, Grant bails his son out of jail, and the two remain in Colorado as they continue their search. As the days on the mountain become years, a tale of survival, family bonds, courage, love, choices, and an experience which will change them forever. This is not your ordinary novel of a typical kidnapping or abduction. It is so much more. We do not hear much from Caitland and less of the mother back in Wisconsin; however, the novel takes many twists and turns into the lives of a family in Colorado and the powerful connection which will made readers cry and laugh at the same time, for an emotional journey. (Emmett, Billy, Sheriff connection) Captivating! Johnston is a gifted and creative writer who weaves a suspense psycho-crime thriller which crosses many genres. Not only is this an intense harrowing mystery thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat, hanging on every word; it is an exploration into human dynamics, the beautiful literary prose, and the many metaphors . . .Spellbinding. Completely blown away by the writing, as difficult to put into words. I am reminded of a mix of rough and tough Clint Eastwood, a twisted and evil mind of Anthony Hopkins, yet poetic and elegant at the same time with flawed characters, pulling you into the heartfelt, strong bond of family as they make their broken way back to one another. And best of all, Johnston pulls this off in one riveting poignant novel. Reminiscent of Charles Martin, Wiley Cash, T. Greenwood, and Catherine Ryan Hyde with the outdoor mountain setting, small town characters, and the deep human emotional dynamics . . so many elements. Guys will devour this one, as well as the gals-from rough and rugged suspen
BrandieC More than 1 year ago
Tim Johnston's Descent is described by the publisher as "a compulsively readable page-turner with a strong literary sensibility." While I would not go so far as to describe Descent as either "compulsively readable" or a "page-turner," it is a decent-enough thriller. However, its "strong literary sensibility" detracts from the tension which drives the best of the genre. Johnston tries so hard to be literary that the story drags, an effect which is only exacerbated by his confusing timeline changes. I received a free copy of Descent through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
AvidReader10KS More than 1 year ago
If you love good thrillers, you must read this one! I rarely give a five star rating or go back and re-read parts of a book I've just finished and I did both with this one. The bare bones plot outline you'll read most places does not do it justice. It is so much more than the story of a kidnapped girl. The writing is really good and so is the plot. I was totally drawn into the characters and anxious to find out what happened to all of them. This book has it all!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sure did not keep my interest a very different style of writing making it hard to follow
Twink More than 1 year ago
Let's just start with wow.... Tim Johnston's new novel Descent is a gripping, gut-wrenching, stay up until your eyes burn you absolutely have to get your hands on. The Courtlands decide to take one last family vacation before their daughter Caitlin starts college in the fall. One morning Caitlin and her brother Ben go for a run/bike ride up the trails while parents Grant and Angela sleep in. And that sleep in becomes Grant and Angela's what if.... because Caitlin is gone and Ben is badly injured...and the Courtlands are thrown into one of those stories you only read about on the front page. They are living the nightmare. Descent is an exploration of the aftermath of that fateful day, told from the viewpoint of all the family members (including Caitlin) - the recriminations, the slow eroding of relationships and ties in the face of such tragedy. But it's also a story of faith, friendship, hope and fortitude. All slowly laid bare by Johnston's prose - raw and moving, yet elegant in their simplicity. I had to put the book down and walk away a few times - some of the situations and emotions were overwhelming. Johnston is a powerful writer. And I admit to doing the unthinkable - peeking ahead a few pages just to calm myself down before continuing on. Descent again reaffirms why I love to read - to be moved and transported by the power of words is simply amazing. The label literary thriller is on the cover blurb of Descent and I think it's totally spot on. Absolutely recommended.
CBH64 More than 1 year ago
I read this book because it was on the New York Time's best seller list.  However, it was not the best book I've read.  It does jump into the kidnapping  fairly quick but then takes a while from there because a long part of the book is how the family copes with the disappearance of Caitlyn and how the family falls apart.  The last quarter of the book does get good when the hero suspects something is not right with a townsperson he meets at a bar.  That is when the book gets really good.  There are so many opinions from readers about Descent.  That is what is great.  That is what makes reading enjoyable; to read and form so may opinions.  My collection of books have books I could not put down, to mediocre, to books I could put down and not finish.  That is the love of reading; to keep reading and compare  the authors' style.  So for me, this book gets three stars.  It was ok, just did not captivate me.  Read for yourself!
librarianDS More than 1 year ago
Admittedly, I am only half way through this book, but my opinion is not going to change. Firstly, it is extremely well-written, so much so that the style confli8cts with the subject. It is far too slow for a thriller. It is far more a character study of a family composed of some very poorly controlled people. The father philanders, the mother is fragile and traumatized at losing her twin sister as a teenager, the daughter, Caitlin, is, for me, the most self-centered unlikable character in the book. She endangers herself and her younger brother by hiking into inaccessible territory in the Rocky Mountains to increase her track performance. The boy, Sean, later sets out on an aimless pointless road trip, in at least one scene putting himself in jeopardy attacking a group of college football players who are raping a girl. I think we are supposed to see this as motivated by guilt for failing to save his sister. I am right now so exasperated with them all I may or may not continue.
MaraBlaise More than 1 year ago
Descent is a harrowing story about a family searching for a daughter that has disappeared. The girl disappears on a summer vacation, kidnapped, in the Rocky Mountains and the family that's left, the father, mother and brother must go on with their lives not knowing where she is, if she is still alive... This book hit me pretty hard. I had it for ages on my Ipad, but the time never really came for me to read it until now when I saw that it would be released, then I thought "what the heck, I read it, who knows it could be good". It was harrowing to read the family's agonizing search. The father Grant who stayed and searched, the mother Angela who in the end returned home but never really could go on living, the son Sean who finally left them and lived in his car and worked for gas money just driving around... In the end I just want to say that Tim Johnston has written a marvelous book, very beautiful written about the evil things men do. In many ways this is so much worse than paranormal horror because things like this happens, children disappear, some are found and some are never found. I cared deeply for the family and I even came to care very much for a character that I never really liked until in the very end, then he did something that made me actually get tearful and I seldom cry when I read books. I recommend this book warmly!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How anyone thinks this book is either exciting or suspenseful, just doesn't read enough. I have read some recent thrillers that have me hanging on the edge of my seat. This one was very slow moving and at times, dull. Would not recommend!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Terrific story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A thriller but also a story about family and failure and blame. A story about life and all of its frailties. Brilliantly written and beautifully told. ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book got rave reviews for being exciting and thrilling. I'm finding it very difficult to read as it jumps all over the place. Granted, I'm only on page 90, but I don't think I'm going to be able to finish it. Its very unusual for me not to finish a book, but this might just be the one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love thrillers, and I appreciate writing that describes scenes and characters such that I can vicariously experience what is taking place; "see" the surroundings and understand the characters motivations. This book gave me none of that. I get the writer's attempt to put me in the character's heads, but I found his methodology to be, at best, confusing, and, at worst, tedious and annoying. Other than Caitlyn, I just never felt like I knew who any of the main characters were. Their conversations were completely lacking in realism, much less revelation. I found myself scanning rather than reading just so I could get past the tedium and hurry to the end. Ultimately predictable in plot, and altogether boring; I couldn't wait to finish so I could move on.
RBRPrinceton More than 1 year ago
This is what real writing is all about - gripping plot, great character development, and beautiful prose. This first adult novel by Tim Johnston is superbly written. We can only hope that it will be followed by many more. Do not miss reading this one!
Rosey2 More than 1 year ago
I definitely recommend reading it.
minniezb More than 1 year ago
I'm still reading this book.  I would not recommend as I think it is hard to follow.  I frequently find myself reading sections multiple times to understand if I'm reading a flashback or current time.  I hope it picks up or starts to be a story.  
Go4Jugular More than 1 year ago
The reviews and ads for this book made me think it was a thriller and, while there are times it is thrilling, it's more a study on the devastation wrought when a child goes missing, even more traumatic for the circumstances being mysterious and thus leaving the remaining family members, initially, without closure. Once that becomes evident, the storytelling settles into a pace, and the character development into a depth, that keeps the reader's interest even in the more contemplative passages. The subjects evoke, where appropriate, sympathy and, elsewhere, the contempt they deserve. If you're a parent, you'll need to be able to separate the premise from the legitimate real life fears that does make this in many ways a horror story, but even though that's something I sometimes find challenging to do, I still found this to be a very worthwhile read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
kayek1 More than 1 year ago
What is one of the worst things that can happen to a family? The Courtland family gets an answer to that question when on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, their son and daughter go out for a run, and only their son returns, badly injured at that. Their family will never be the same again, as they try to come to grips with their missing daughter, their injured son, and their now dysfunctional family. This novel brings up one any family's worst fear, and plots out how this family dealt with it. Frightening in intensity and all too real family emotions, this keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
lauralovesreviewingLT More than 1 year ago
It was supposed to be a fun family vacation. The last one before Caitlin went off to college. Her parents are also hoping it will give them time to reflect and maybe repair their failing marriage. When Cailtlin’s younger brother, Sean, is hurt while he and Caitlin are on an early morning run in the hills, a stranger stops his vehicle and offers to take Caitlin to get help. Torn between knowing better and doubting herself, Caitlin makes a choice that echoes through the family, setting them all on different paths. I’ve often wondered why people do what they do. Caitlin knew better than to go with a stranger. But think about it. What would you do? Your little brother is seriously injured. You need to get help for him fast. There’s someone offering to take you. She could have been thinking, it won’t happen to me. Everything will be fine. Or, what else can I do? So many things must have gone through her mind in a flash. Then, to know she made the wrong choice. This is much more than just a story about an abduction. It’s a families journey. The brother is overcome by guilt. If he hadn’t got hurt, Caitlin would be okay. The parents are torn over letting the kids go off by themselves. Didn’t they stress to the kids enough about the dangers out there. As time passed and doubt and guilt wormed their way through this fractured family, they all changed. They all coped with it differently. And the author takes you inside their heads and hearts. Helps you see the hows and whys of each characters actions. Powerful, disturbing, suspenseful, emotional. All are just words to help describe this story. You need to read it and experience what these characters go through. I was asking myself questions long after I finished this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Strange character development at the beginning, but overall a very good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. I loved the development of the entire family as they dealt with the loss of their daughter and sister. Very well written - will definitely read more by Tim Johnston.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful! Once I began this book, l could not put it down. The family dynamics felt so true, and the individual characters felt so real, it was as if I've known them.