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In the universe of climbers, there was nothing more hallowed--or freighted--than the epic. Whymper's descent from Matterhorn, Herzog on Annapurna, Doug Scott crawling down the Ogre, Joe Simpson touching the void, Krakauer in thin air, the list ran long. An epic was the closest of close calls, often involving the death of partners, the loss of toes and fingers, madness, terrible privations, the whole nine yards. Summits come, summits go, and those were matters of record. An epic, though, that went into the hall of fame.

The irony was that, for all the shock and awe an epic inspired, no seasoned climber ever wanted to be part of one. No epics: that was the wise man's mantra.
-The Wall, Jeff Long

Jeff Long's new novel of an epic climb on El Capitan in Yosemite is aptly titled The Wall: A Thriller. It's apt because the tale is certainly thrilling but it also seems A Thriller, in the same way G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday is subtitled A Nightmare. If I've understood the book properly, it is very much an allegory like a Chesterton or a novel of Charles Williams--though its purposes are not, like theirs, explicitly Christian. Its final effect though is truly devastating and stunningly moralistic.

Reviewing the book is an awkward affair because revealing the crux of the book would ruin the readers' experience and enjoyment, while that pivot point reflects a more than slightly negative light on the action that makes up the bulk of the story. Decades earlier, long before Into Thin Air and Touching the Void had made mountain-climbing a hip topic and trendy pursuit, Hugh Glass and Lewis Cole had made names for themselves and met their respective spouses on El Capitan. Now they've returned for one last ascent, Hugh's Alzheimer afflicted wife having disappeared in the Arabian desert and Lewis's plasticized wife about to leave him, though he doesn't know it yet. They're aware, as are all those around them, that they're too old for such a foolhardy attempt. The only question appears to be how quickly they'll have to turn back. As it happens, they come close to not even getting started after a trio of women have their own disaster trying to blaze a new trail up the mountain and Hugh, who finds the crumpled body of one of them, is attacked by a strange vagrant mountain man who claims: "You killed her" and "Now all hell's loose because of you."

Having come so far though they do decide to at least give it a try, despite an atmosphere of inchoate dread, that Mr. Long evokes quite deftly. Amidst subsequent physical attacks, fire, snow, and madness, Lewis gives up, but Hugh gets roped into helping one of the female climber's former boyfriends, who's become obsessed with the idea that she's still alive. The rescue attempt goes as badly as one might expect, being led by a man in his 50s. Mr. Long confronts us with questions about what sort of responsibility these climbers, and climbers generally, have or ought to have to one another and to the folks they count on to risk their lives in rescue attempts when ill-advised climbs go predictably awry. In a recent interview he, a climber himself, said:
"Back when I was in my 20s, nobody had children or families. That's sort of changed. By this stage, people have been killed and left behind families. It takes a horrific toll. ... I've expanded my idea of risk. My actions now affect someone else, someone who can't protect herself from my actions."
But these somewhat mountaineering-specific concerns are only a lead-in to an even more urgent question about our responsibilities to one another, a question that he answers in such politically-incorrect fashion and so powerfully that it justifies the extended and detailed account of a climb that he's all the while causing us to resent to some degree.

I'm reluctant to say more lest I ruin the book for you, but if you do read it and are struck by the themes alluded to here or you read any interviews or profiles that mention them, please feel free to contact me to discuss them. And, by all means, do read the book.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Jeff Long Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Wall: A Thriller by Jeff Long (Wriiten Voices)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One from The Wall
    -EXCERPT: from The Descent: Book One: Discovery
    -ESSAY: The Silver Chalice (Jeff Long, Summer 1995, Climbing)
    -ESSAY: The Most Dangerous Game: The Hunt for Claude Dallas (Jeff Long, Sept./Oct. 1981, Rocky Mountain Magazine)
    -ESSAY: In the Constellation of Rooster and Lunatics" Climbing Skyscrapers (Jeff Long, 1980, ASCENT)
    -PROFILE: A Long journey for Boulder's 'extreme thriller writer' (Clay Evans, January 15, 2006, Daily Camera)
    -PROFILE: These days, Jeff Long gets his kicks from writing (Clay Evans, January 14, 2006, Daily Camera)
    -REVIEW: of The Wall by Jeff Long (Clay Evans, Daily Camera)
    -REVIEW: of The Wall (Tom Walker, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Wall (David Lazarus, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of The Descent (Charlene Brusso, SF Site)
    -REVIEW: of The Descent (Stuart Carter, InfinityPlus)
    -REVIEW: of The Reckoning by Jeff Long (Andy Plonka, Mystery Reader)

Book-related and General Links:


What an excellent review - I enjoyed it almost as much as I did the book. Great summary of the plot and the 'atmosphere' of the book without giving anything away. Well done!

- Alex

- Feb-01-2006, 19:29