The Descent of Man

Image of The Descent of Man
Release Date: 
May 29, 2017
Penguin Books
Reviewed by: 

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel: A good citizen and wine steward, Jim Sandusky, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed. Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry. Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he changes his mind and steals the truck.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point; however, the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities. Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm—no, make that far too calm—in the face of danger. Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the face of unforeseen events. As a result, we never feel any true fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling. For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number. Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number. This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen. (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left unchanged in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd—as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit—as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods. Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“. . . I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog. I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing. So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language. Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms down) and occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing: “. . . the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution. The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.” I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just never felt quite real enough. The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.