Kevin Desinger‘s debut novel, The Descent of Man (Unbridled Books, 272 pages, $24.95), jumps off to a brisk start when a forty-year-old man named Jim wakes up in the middle of the night and looks out his bedroom window to see two men attempting to steal his Camry. His wife Marla tells him to call the cops, but instead he heads outside to try to foil the theft. He observes them for a moment, then, as Desinger writes, “something in the Camry broke off with a loud snap, and one of the car thieves swore. At the same time something in me snapped too.” Jim, a mild-mannered man suddenly filled with rage, hops into the men’s truck, drives it down the road into a ditch, and beats it with a galvanized pipe. Jim can’t account for his own actions, and begins to craft a series of lies to cover up what he did from Marla and the police.
Marla gets Jim to tell her the whole story, but she won’t succeed in prying the facts about subsequent events from him as the book develops. Marla and Jim don’t tell the cops that Jim took the truck, but Sergeant Rainey, the officer assigned to the case, is a quick study. He guesses the truth, and warns Jim that the two men accused of attempting to steal the car—brothers, ironically named Larry and Wade Hood—are seasoned criminals. “If they start phoning or following you around—if this goes nonboring,” Rainey says, “I want to know about it.” Rainey is an interesting character, able to deduce almost all the facts no matter how cleverly Jim tries to conceal them, a kind of Sherlock Holmes re-envisioned as an American cop.
Instead of sitting back and allowing the cops to take care of things, Jim instead seeks out information on the Hood brothers, so that he’s prepared when one of them turns up at the deli where he works as a wine steward. Again, Jim takes matters into his own hands, and what follows is a suspenseful and shocking high-speed car chase worthy of a summer popcorn flick. Jim can’t believe what he’s done, and thinks, “it was twice that I had met the man in his world, on his terms, and beaten him.”
The results of this car chase haunt Jim, and turn him into an insomniac. After the vigorous opening, this section of The Descent of Man goes a bit slack, with Jim driving around alone at night, observing people but not interacting with them much, and ruminating. Desinger intercuts this section with flashbacks about Marla and Jim’s difficulty having children, which underlies their current relationship troubles. The middle of the book illustrates why some how-to-write-a-novel manuals instruct aspiring writers to avoid long sections where a character drives around alone—these scenes tend to be filler between moments of tension, action, and character interaction.
Fortunately, the momentum picks up again quickly when Jim figures out the second Hood brother is on his trail, and makes plans to deal with this problem. Desinger does a skillful job of convincing the reader that a man as ordinary as Jim could be goaded into taking actions so “outside the pattern of [his] life,” as Jim describes them.
The Descent of Man is a thoughtful literary thriller, a good read for people who might avoid thrillers because they often contain clichéd dialogue, situations, or characters—Desinger’s book is free of these faults. The Descent of Man keeps one eye focused on primal violence and retribution, and one on more enlightened matters, such as the poetry of Rumi, the nature of the classic philosophical concept of “the social contract,” and fine wine and the people who drink and collect it.
Kevin Desinger will discuss The Descent of Man in Portland at Powell’s on May 3 (7:30 p.m.), Woodstock Wine & Deli on May 7 (7:30 p.m.), and Broadway Books on May 10 (7:30 p.m.).