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Book Review: The Descent of Man by Kevin Desinger

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“When you take primitive action to solve a modern problem, a part of you reverts,” says the protagonist in Kevin Desinger’s enticing and unpredictable debut novel The Descent of Man. The fuzzy math adds up as he continues: “A part of your intellect and most of your emotional structure loses thousands of years of social development.”

Adages exaggerated for effect, perhaps. But during those once-bitten times, do we always go into twice-shy mode? Suburban everyman Jim Sandusky offers another option when this main character does what also comes spontaneously naturally to him, upon being awakened by two car thieves late at night who do what comes feloniously naturally to them. Against the wishes of his schoolteacher wife, Marla, he slips and slinks outside and, acting on sheer impulse, steals the thieves’ truck, driving it into a ditch, smashing out the windows. Jim surprises even himself with his actions, not being able to decide whether “it was irony, poetic justice, or just dumb luck.”

Whatever the case, that one event sets into motion a chain of events that alters the course of his life forever, one from being a quiet and conscientious wine steward to, as he might accuse himself to be, some kind of devolved, violent-prone, soo last-millenium retread. When Larry Hood, one of the thieves, begins stalking Jim, Larry ends up dead, with indirect implications that touch upon Jim, whose consequent sleeplessness sees him restless and visiting the fascinatingly seedy ends of town – actions that lead to Marla moving out of the house.

The appearance and new threat posed by the second thief — the first’s unbalanced and more dangerus brother — wreaks new havoc upon Jims’ angst-driven life. And it is at this time we may sense that impulse and instinct, subconsciously, is giving subtle sway to understandable ideas and formations of preemptive strike. Which keeps us turning pages with every twist and turn, for we have no signpost up ahead toward destination or denouement. Like Jim, we’d like to fool ourselves into thinking that when push has come to shove we’re still civilized enough to think that laws, institutions, or society are necessarily going to step in on a timely basis to intervene and intercede fairly and objectively. But even in the face of Jim’s wish-list contention that “Resisting urges is part of being civilized,” too often  other means and forces must be employed to “protect and serve” ourselves, our families, and our homes. As Jim reasons and rationalizes, we keep in mind that this is an educated man who considers all angles, too — to the extent that he broaches his concern over breaking the social contract, while he brings Rousseau into the big picture.

At the same time that Jim realizes any high–gear push-to-shovel ready basic primal instincts personified in some riveting cat and mouse suspense, a police sergeant’s ostensible trust and camaraderie coincide with underlying flashbacks of Jim and Marla’s romance and their tortured efforts to conceive. It all adds a dramatic dimension and gravitas to the characterization as well as the narrative and plot. Taken together, the combustible forces unite to provide a coherent and cohesive novel for diverse readership levels.

It’s also perfect reading for those who, say, “take a primitive action to solve a modern problem,” or who “go through the motions of an approximated life – you work, shop, eat, sleep – but a vital part of you remains hunkered in the dark, waiting for some indication that your world is ready for you to re-evolve.”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch