The Wall: A Thriller. Jeff Long. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. 294 pages. $24.00.
Midway through their lives’ journeys, two former Camp 4 dirtbags, Hugh and Lewis, find themselves in a dark wood at the base of El Cap; the forests and walls of their youth now transformed into a macabre dreamscape, complete with a prophesizing wildman, witches and mysterious screams—a tangle of savage birds, lost souls, nightmares and menacing visions. This Dantesque vision rises out of the modern-day setting with a seamlessness that proves, once more, Jeff Long's ability to forge a sense of authentic myth—and in the process to tell a gripping story
Readers of his cult novel, Angels of Light, will recognize certain familiar elements: a motley cast of climbers and rangers; a mystery that draws its protagonists high up the cliffs and deeper into an atmosphere of impending doom. Yet this new novel takes the same preoccupation with lost innocence and karmic retribution onto a far more ambitious scale—at times reminiscent of Moby Dick, the Old Testament, Greek tragedies, the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, and the tradition of medieval allegory, in ways both strangely beautiful (as in the glittering deluge of insects descending on El Cap after a forest fire) and not so subtle (just in case the reader misses these allusions, Long is careful to offer reminders, such as “The Ten Commandments drama of plague and apocalypse grew tiresome, and finally ugly”).
The rest of the prose's delicacy, however, makes up for any occasional heavy-handedness. The climbing scenes are so deeply woven into psychological story that the borders between the characters’ internal and external worlds fade; when Hugh desperately searches for holds as he tries to make a second ascent of a new El Cap route, the suspense becomes not only whether or not he will fall, but also what he will learn about the first ascensionist by uncovering her line. Appropriate to a book about crossing boundaries, Long’s imagery becomes most poignant in moments of transition and metamorphosis: the air cooling from gold to blue the instant a climber realizes she’s falling to her death; the face of a woman's corpse turning from rose to gray when a man touches her shoulder; the strands of a rope unfurling as they break: “Fifty feet overhead, right where it bends from sight, the rope bursts into flower. It happens in a small, white explosion of nylon fibers. It looks like a magician's trick, like a bouquet springing from a wand.”
For the novel's characters, each in his or her own way tragic, such beauty might be the only consolation, an all-too-brief, and dangerously seductive, burst of light before darkness falls. The aging Hugh and Lewis, in an effort to recapture their youth, start back up their most legendary first ascent and become involved, instead, in a perilous rescue attempt. As they climb higher, the threads of the plot tighten around them, until they begin to wonder whether they’ve been drawn into some plan of ghostly vengeance.
By the time the reader gets to the end, he or she realizes that behind each word and act lays the author’s impeccable design, an exquisite and deliberately contrived plot. This ornate artifice provides both some of the delight and the potential frustration of reading the book. “We didn’t ask to be part of this,” one character protests about the sequence of events. Perhaps the book’s greatest unanswered question is why so many people’s fates would be arranged around one man's punishment. Maybe all climbers are somehow implicated because our pursuit takes us into forbidden realms, bringing our unconscious close to the surface, encouraging our hubris, feeding off our much-cited personal demons. Or maybe it’s simply that in the book’s self-proclaimed genre as a “thriller,” no one is innocent, no one is safe. The ultimate message of ghost stories might be why we're so drawn to them: being haunted is better than facing a complete void. As he struggles up the wall, Hugh thinks, “If he could finish this thing and get to the top, then the smoke would part and the floor would be revealed and he would surely be able to read his own fate.”
Haven’t each of us hoped for such adrenaline-induced epiphanies, at one time or another, and most often in vain, as we’ve started up some climb, full of our own existential questions? With The Wall, Long has firmly established himself as the voice of our subculture's collective unconscious, invoking images that continue to haunt, long after the shivers of reading have subsided.
Note: The Wall won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival 2006.