Friday, January 14, 2011

The Wall

The Wall is a novel by Jeff Long, published in 2006. This is my review for Helium:

Some writers surprise you. I read “The Wall,” by Jeff Long, because I had read and thoroughly enjoyed three other books by him, “The Decent,” “Year Zero,” and “Reckoning.” Each of those was decidedly different from the others, yet unified by a strong sense of both story and character and a deft hand at holding back the key strokes until just the right moment, though the clues are there. “The Wall” continues the trend that Long has established in his writing.

If you had told me that I would enjoy a full length novel about mountain climbing -- let alone hate when it was over -- I would have scoffed. Mountain climbing is not a subject that calls to me, possibly because I have a healthy fear of heights. So a climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan, even one that turns into a desperate rescue mission, would seem to me worthy of a short story at best. But Long weaves his magic, mostly through the perceptions -- eyes, ears, tastes, smells and mostly touch -- of Hugh Glass, a 50 something mountain climbing veteran looking for one last hurrah with his best buddy, Lewis. Yep, that’s Hughie and Louie -- but these guys are no joke.

They mastered El Cap decades ago, and are legend for it even though others came after, went farther, and did it faster. They were pioneers. Now they want to retrace their steps and forget all the years in between.

Hugh’s wife Annie died in the desert a little while before the story begins. Lewis’ wife Rachael wants to leave him, has outgrown him. For Lewis, the climb is an odd chance to win her back. For Hugh, the demons he keeps at bay are even more personal -- and buried so deep that Lewis cannot manage get Hugh to talk about it. Although Lewis wants to act as friend and listener, and Hugh has thoughts of helping Lewis accept Rachael‘s leaving, the code of “real men“ applies, and both men are more comfortable discussing the logistics of their climb than the tragedies in their lives.. Both men seek to escape their sadness at the wall. More, to transcend it.

But a trio of female climbers gets in trouble and Hugh finds himself in the middle of a rescue attempt spearheaded by young Augustine, a man with demons of his own. One of these is Andie, one of the three women in peril. In an environment where even the smallest mistake can be fatal, these men must climb the sheer El Cap -- the Wall -- and retrace the steps that brought the women into mortal danger. When they reach their goal, the danger is just beginning.

Long weaves a spellbinding tale, mostly because Hugh Glass himself is so stoic and closed-mouthed. Yet Glass is our point of view. We see the world as he sees it, we feel every inch of the Wall as he climbs it, and even the uninitiated can understand the process as he describes it. The intimacy is powerful and makes the climax unforgettable.

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