The Ascent. Jeff Long. William Morrow, New York, NY, 1992. 284 pages. $20.00. Jeff Long’s second novel describes an attempt on the north side of Everest. The route, the “Kore Wall,” is “an imaginary monster,” but it often feels very real indeed. One of Long’s strengths is his ability to make the mountain a ferocious mass of rock and ice, hurling debris upon its puny challengers. The cold, the wind, the whole hostile environment are rendered with vividness and force.
The expedition is called the U.S.U.S. (us, us!), and some of its members seek only material advancement. The worst of the lot, alas, is its leader, “an accountant who had somehow ascended to the presidency of the American Alpine Club” and whose true objective is a cabinet post in Washington. At the other extreme are the central figures, Daniel and Abe, with their deeply personal goals. Their relation begins with one of the finest sections of the book, a harrowing overture in which Daniel’s young climbing partner, Diana, dies in a crevasse, while the badly injured Daniel is saved. Diana’s death is prolonged; toward the end she eerily breaks into song. And all the while Abe, age 17, is keeping futile watch over her. Nearly twenty years later Abe has almost forgotten Daniel, but Daniel has secretly maintained the connection (his name is Corder: cord-er) and recruits Abe for the expedition. He wants—he needs—to reach the top with him: “Same day. Same rope.” Abe, who has had trouble making connections of his own, accepts this one.
The Ascent is nothing if not ambitious. It links the expedition with the tragedy of Tibet itself: “a graveyard and gulag garrisoned by Chinese troops and overrun by 7.5 million Chinese colonists.” Thus Long brings to Base Camp a Tibetan monk, Wangdu, savagely tortured by the Chinese, who are determined to keep him in the country, alive or dead. Wangdu becomes a touchstone for the moral qualities of the climbers; some take risks to defend his ebbing life, while others betray him with little conscience. Long implicitly associates the ravaging of Tibet with the worst aspects of this American attempt on Everest, which is pointedly described in the language of sexual and military assault. While the expedition has a spiritual meaning for Abe and Daniel, for others it is driven by the most worldly considerations. “We’re in the latest Rolex commercial,” the leader proclaims at one point. One of the two women in the group has garnered hundreds of thousands in funding for the expedition by her looks—“a pantyhose company has kicked in $80,000 for rights to her legs.” The fury that Everest unleashes seems only too well deserved.
For all its strengths, the book has a crucial weakness: its characters lack strong definition. They are less interesting than their actions imply. I found it easier to remember some of the minor players, like the unsympathetic AAC president or the devious Chinese liaison officer, then I did its central ones. Thus the Abe-Daniel nexus, which should dominate the narrative, feels merely peripheral. Unlike Long’s first novel, Angels of Light, this one is without really strong figures to match—or enhance—the power of its action or the clarity of its physical description. This major defect undercuts many of the book’s intentions.
Although The Ascent may disappoint admirers of the very promising Angels of Light, its achievement remains considerable. Long is a bold writer, ready to address major subjects and expert at describing the harsh environment of the big mountains. As in the earlier novel, he has perhaps more material than the narrative can bear, but in the end, he draws the threads of his story together: Wangdu, Diana, the bond between Daniel and Abe. He fashions a fitting conclusion to his violent and sobering tale.