In my indie bookstore day job, I’m kind of the Queen of Nonfiction. The title doesn’t mean much, other than I can usually come up with a decent recommendation for someone looking for a good history/science/nature book, and I’m in charge of resetting the nonfiction new release table on Tuesdays—and that means new fiction releases sometimes fly under my radar at first. That’s exactly what happened with Karen Outen’s debut novel, Dixon, Descending, which I didn’t see until a few weeks after its release but proceeded to buy immediately based on its cover (I know, I know) and just one-third of its jacket copy.

Here’s the premise: following their mother’s death, buttoned-up charter school psychologist and former almost-Olympic runner, Dixon Bryant, lets his audacious, charming-as-heck entrepreneur older brother, Nate, talk him into attempting to be the first Black American men to summit Mount Everest. As you can likely surmise from the title (and the first five words of the front-cover blurb: “This book will hurt you”): calamity ensues.

Book Review: Dixon, Descending by Karen Outen

The Ups

Adventure! Drama and heartbreak! Characters you love and characters you can’t stand! Relatable situations and eye-opening scenarios! Unlikely friendships! Personal growth! This book has it all, and Outen does a (mostly) great job of weaving everything together in a way that both holds the reader’s attention despite frequent time jumps—between the spring of 2011, when the brothers make their Everest attempt, and the fall of the same year into 2012—and takes them on an emotional rollercoaster with drops as big as Everest itself.

  • Adventure: The main character climbs Mount Everest, this one is obvious.
  • Drama and heartbreak: Shit gets real and characters die, and they do it well after Outen has already made you love them.
  • Characters you love (not a comprehensive list): Dixon, Nate, Marcus, Lena, Pemba and Angkaji, Herbert—these are people you’ll wish you could meet in real life.
  • Characters you can’t stand (a mostly comprehensive list): Dixon, Shiloh, Cal Fierston—these are the ones you’ll wish you could slap through the pages.
  • Relatable situations: Assuming that most Dixon, Descending readers will be of athletic and outdoorsy persuasions (Olympic-level/Everest-climbing caliber not required), every scene that tackles the activities we do and why we are drawn to them—e.g., “The best part of the climb was digging his feet into the snowy ribs of the mountain. Each step was suffering then proving you could triumph.” (p. 189)—will have you nodding in agreement.
  • Eye-opening scenarios: These will vary by reader, of course, but for me, a white woman, reading about Dixon, a (fictional, sure) Black man, both on the mountain and back at home offered an incredible amount of insight into the (real-life) Black experience in the outdoor community specifically and America generally.
  • Unlikely friendships: I won’t spoil anything, but I will tell you that the Dixon-Lena and Dixon-Herbert relationships will both give you the warm fuzzies.
  • Personal growth: Yes, Dixon descends Everest and makes it home, but his post-expedition downward spiral—his physical and emotional losses take him to some dark places—is what puts the “descending” in the book’s title. What the title fails to convey, however, is that in those dark places, Dixon also learns some really important lessons and ultimately ascends again; maybe not to his “old self,” but toward a new version of a “whole self.”

I also greatly appreciated how well-researched Outen’s work is. From effortlessly conjuring the overcrowded nature of Mount Everest these days—“So here he stood in his mountain wilderness. Just him and eight hundred others.” (p. 87)—to name-dropping real-life Everest firsts (Sibusiso Vilane, first Black man; Sophia Danenberg, first Black American), you may forget that you’re reading a novel a time or two.

The Downs

Here’s the problem with books that “have it all”: sometimes, it’s a bit too much. At times, Dixon, Descending feels like it could be two separate novels. For as much detail as you get about the Bryant boys’ Everest expedition and Dixon’s saga once he’s back stateside, it still seems like large parts of both stories are missing because it’s too much for one narrative to handle.

My other (nit-picky) complaint is that the story’s pace is either “Olympic Runner” fast or “Stuck in That Infamous 2019 Everest Summit Line” slow; on several occasions, I found myself wishing for a more balanced tempo. The time jumps were also occasionally a little disorienting—and that *means something* coming from me, a reader who prefers that method of storytelling in novels. There are time/place markers at the beginning of some chapters, but not all; this just felt lazy, even though it’s clear why some chapters lack them (they were in the same time/place as the previous one), and meant it took a few extra moments to get yourself back into the story if you had left off on a chapter that didn’t begin by telling you when and where you were.

The Aftermath

This is the kind of story you have to sit with for a while before settling down to write about it. I read it over the course of just a few days, but it’s taken a couple of weeks to “feel ready” to review it. The full front-cover blurb is, “This book will hurt you, move you, and make you glad you joined the journey.” It is correct on all counts.Ultimately, whether you dream of someday tackling Mount Everest yourself or just enjoy reading about others taking on the challenge of climbing to the top of the world (as well as the challenges of normal life), Dixon, Descending is well worth its list price and the time it’ll take you to read it.