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Five Skies: A Novelby Ron Carlson
"Carlson's focus is transporting, absorbing. It shakes you from stupor, strips you down. He understands that most of us live in a world of enervating crap....And Five Skies offers a longed-for blueprint of the antidote....We agree when Carlson describes civilization as 'a hundred layers of ten thousand decisions, only a few of them even interesting.' The men leave Five Skies the better for it. So do we." Alison Glock, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
Award-winning short story writer Ron Carlson delivers a stirring novel about three men confronting their pasts and their purpose.
Beloved story writer Ron Carlson's first novel in thirty years, Five Skies is the story of three men gathered high in the Rocky Mountains for a construction project that is to last the summer. Having participated in a spectacular betrayal in Los Angeles, the giant, silent Arthur Key drifts into work as a carpenter in southern Idaho. Here he is hired, along with the shiftless and charming Ronnie Panelli, to build a stunt ramp beside a cavernous void. The two will be led by Darwin Gallegos, the foreman of the local ranch who is filled with a primeval rage at God, at man, at life. As they endeavor upon this simple, grand project, the three reveal themselves in cautiously resonant, profound ways. And in a voice of striking intimacy and grace, Carlson's novel reveals itself as a story of biblical, almost spiritual force.
A bellwether return from one of our greatest craftsmen, Five Skies is sure to be one of the most praised and cherished novels of the year.
"Two stoics and a teenage misanthrope are brought together in Idaho's Rocky Mountains to build a ramp to nowhere in Carlson's first novel in 25 years, a tour de force of grief, atonement and the cost of loyalty. Darwin Gallegos, spiritually bereft after the sudden death of his wife, is hired for one last job at Rio Difficulto, the sprawling ranch where he had lived and worked for years. The job: construct a motorcycle ramp that will launch a daredevil across a gorge (the event is to be taped and bring in a pile of money). Darwin hires for the job drifters Arthur Key, a large and quiet man hiding from his recent past, and Ronnie Panelli, a wiry teenager on the lam from minor criminal mischief. As the men work from late spring through summer, their wounds come slowly to light: the seething fury that took root in Darwin after his wife died; Arthur's career as the go-to Hollywood stunt engineer that he abandoned after betraying his guileless brother; and Ronnie's short lifetime of failure, atoned for as he learns the carpentry trade. Carlson writes with uncommon precision, and this return to long-form fiction after four well-received story collections is stunning." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"What is the main element of fiction aimed primarily at men? It's certainly not love. In such traditionally masculine genres as private eye mysteries, techno-thrillers, paperback adventure novels, westerns and 'hard' science fiction, there is one common theme: 'Men at Work.' These are all books about guys going about their jobs and doing them well, despite personal sorrows or enemy action. After all,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the great dream of nearly every man is to be regarded as someone who knows his business, a professional, the person whom people turn to when they need help that is more than merely adequate. Skill, craftsmanship, quiet mastery — these are what men admire in others and one day hope to possess themselves. This isn't to deny such ambitions or qualities to women, by no means, but a man deeply defines himself, consciously or not, by the work he does and how well he does it. Work is his validation and refuge, and sometimes his healer. Ron Carlson's 'Five Skies' is a novel about three damaged men who work together for a summer in Idaho building a ramp. This doesn't sound like much of a plot, I know. But if one invests any work — building a ramp or writing a novel — with sufficient attention, care and reverence, the result can be a kind of prayer. Certainly, the three racked souls of 'Five Skies' are all in need of spiritual and emotional succor. Arthur Key is a middle-aged, self-taught engineer, guilt-ridden by a terrible mistake; Darwin Gallegos is a 60ish ranch foreman, broken-hearted and wounded by an irremediable loss; and Ronnie Panelli is a skinny 20-year-old kid, a thief and a runaway, who yearns for respect and love. The novel relates in part how these three grow into a kind of family, as they move toward tragedy and redemption. Carlson's style — low-key, deliberate, reminiscent of both early Hemingway and contemporary James Salter — possesses the kind of serene assurance that disdains the show-offy. Carlson doesn't need it, since he can turn even a shopping list into a poem: 'He had a list in his pocket and he began assembling the items: wooden stakes; heavy twine; steel hinges; two hundred yards of rope; a one-inch tempered steel drill bit; forty yard-long dowels, diameter one inch; a basket of steel fittings; boxes of wood screws; bags of brads; a roof stapler and staples; five gallons of wood sealer; five gallons of white enamel; spray enamel; white, black, red; coarse-bristle paintbrushes; four paint rollers with extension handles; ten bags of posthole mix; five gallons of creosote; and a shopping cart of miscellaneous small tools, including chisels, a rasp and a fine Stanley wood plane.' It's not enough, of course, just to buy such supplies and equipment; you need to know how to use them properly. And Arthur Key does. He's big and strong and avoids useless action; he's also cautious and alert to every contingency: 'He hated not being able to see it all. He hated operations where the cause-effect wasn't 99 percent. He'd broken in every crew and every crew member with that mantra: 99 percent certainty and also all of the possibilities in the last 1 percent.' Arthur cannot forgive himself because just once passion led him to violate his principles, and disaster resulted. Darwin, who spent most of his life on a ranch near their work site, has cut himself off from all that he loves because of the desolation he feels over his now-lost happiness. He doesn't wish to be healed, but long days of physical labor help him, as they do Arthur: Men have always turned to obsessive, hard work as a refuge from confusion and pain. Like Nick Adams in Hemingway's 'Big Two-Hearted River,' Darwin finds in cooking a kind of momentary grace: 'Darwin could cook a breakfast fry like no one Arthur had ever seen. He was quick and quiet and before a person had his boots tied right, the sound and smell of bacon was in the morning air and then the skillet eggs with onions and ham, sometimes with the sharp cheddar he bought in the village in a big brick, and the thick fried bread, close to burned the way Darwin had learned the other two men liked it. ... There was coffee all morning and all day and into the night. They cooked on the tent stove until the days warmed a little and then the three-burner camp stove on the foldable legs in the open air. Beside the thing hung the two cook towels and on a hook, the big spatula.' As for Ronnie: He is the savior of them all. Because of his lack of foresight, he is injured and taken into the nearby town — named Mercy, no less — for medical treatment. There he meets the sexually victimized Traci, in need of a good man. Ronnie gradually becomes that man, as he learns how to believe in both himself and the work of his hands. Near the climax of the novel, Arthur observes the two young people together: 'He turned and saw in the theater of the lighted room, Traci washing Ronnie's face with a rag, her hand on his bare shoulder as a brace as she scrubbed up behind his ear and around his neck, under his chin, rinsing the rag and then his face and the other ear and his chest as he stood with his eyes closed. It was love. Arthur stood transfixed. Love had been no friend to Arthur, and even now seeing it in others alarmed him in a way he could never explain — with a kind of sickening hope.' At first it seems as if 'Five Skies' might become a study in madness or obsession, like 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' but once the men start to interact with the people of Mercy, an already serious novel starts to grow more intense. Traci's old boyfriend wants her back. Drunken louts nose around the construction site. The stunt motorcyclist, for whom the ramp is being built, comes to visit. Arthur knows that she will break every bone in her body when she lands, but she remains undeterred. There is, however, an idyllic afternoon of fishing and swimming, then a feast just before the ramp is finished. The reader begins to hope that the three men will find the happiness they deserve. Against our transient human sorrows Carlson subtly juxtaposes the ongoing natural world — the skies of Idaho, the steep gorge with the rushing river at its bottom, the dark starry nights, the omnipresence of death, when rabbits scream as a hawk strikes. Only Carlson's sure sense of balance keeps his novel back from the edge of portentousness, though I hoped for a less melodramatic ending. Not that what we have isn't carefully prepared, and appropriate, too. But still. Like Arthur, readers sometimes find themselves full of a kind of sickening hope. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com." Reviewed by Carlos LozadaAlan WolfeMichael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] note-perfect novel that will challenge and reward all who care about literary fiction." Booklist (Starred Review)
"A thinking man's novel, containing all the rugged elements of Western allure." Kirkus Reviews
"Five Skies is multilayered, rich with metaphors, which some may interpret biblically; either way, readers will find Carlson's experiences on the page to be both moving and illuminating." St. Petersburg Times
"With a discerning feel for the connection between place and character, Carlson gradually reveals what makes each man tick and his relationship to the others as they work side by side over a single summer. Five Skies is a haunting tale of loss and redemption." Denver Post
"A beautiful novel, as unique and insular as the quiet and powerful landscape it inhabits, and as braided with hope and despair, and hope again, as are the lives of the three men at its center." Rick Bass
"In Five Skies Ron Carlson has fashioned such a moving and elemental meditation on every man's struggle toward family, toward the embrace of his individual soul, that, by its end, I found my appreciation for both grief and redemption to be profoundly altered. Here is a fine and gracefully rendered novel." Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life
"Five Skies is a novel written with feeling by an obvious pro. I wish, however, that Carlson had allowed his readers a few dramatic thrills." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] novel of exquisite richness and pared-down elegance, in which few words are wasted but volumes of wisdom are conveyed." BookReporter.com
"This is a simply told, quietly moving tale yet one that, in its use of time, nature, and the seasonal round, carries an archetypal resonance. Recommended." Library Journal
Award-winning short story writer Carlson's first novel in 30 years delivers a stirring tale about three men confronting their pasts and their purpose.
[A] moving novel about friendship, forgiveness, and mortality.” —Nancy Pearl, NPRs Morning Edition
Ron Carlson has always been a critics favorite, but Return to Oakpine shows the acclaimed writer at his finest. In this tender and nostalgic portrait of western American life, Carlson tells the story of four middle-aged friends who once played in a band while growing up together in small-town Wyoming. One of them, Jimmy Brand, left for New York City and became an admired novelist. Thirty years later in 1999, hes returned to die. Craig Ralston and Frank Gunderson never left Oakpine; Mason Kirby, a Denver lawyer, is back on family business. Jimmys arrival sends the other mens dreams and expectations, realized and deferred, whirling to the surface. And now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most essential thing they ever do.
From a widely admired author, a poignant novel about homecoming, friendship, growing up, and growing old for fans of Richard Ford and Richard Russo
In this finely wrought portrait of western American life, Ron Carlson takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, and into the lives of four men trying to make peace with who they are in the world.
In high school, these men were in a band. One of them, Jimmy, left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother. A successful novelist, he has returned thirty years later, in 1999—because he is dying.
With Carlson’s characteristic grace, we learn what has become of these friends and the different directions of their lives. Craig and Frank never left; Mason, a top lawyer in Denver, is back in town to fix up and sell his parents’ house. Now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most important thing they can do.
Return to Oakpine is a generous, tender look at friendship, family, and the roads not taken, by a writer at the peak of his craft.
About the Author
Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of four story collections, including At the Jim Bridger and The Hotel Eden, two novels, and a young adult novel. His stories appear regularly in Harper's, The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Playboy, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the director of the MFA creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine.
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