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The Signalby Ron Carlson
"When a writer as masterful as Carlson lays out his methods in the same straightforward way a carpenter might use to tell an apprentice how to frame a house, it is a generous gift. It's also a little misleading (because the process is not quite as simple as he makes it sound) and a little deflating (because any glimpse behind the veil of artistry that reveals a man sitting in front of a computer is a bit of a letdown). Dorothy and her friends are not happy when they find out the Wizard of Oz is a little old man from Omaha. Where's the great and powerful ruler who sent them after a witch's broomstick?" Jeff Baker, The Oregonian (read the entire Oregonian review)
Synopses & Reviews
Backpacking into the Wind River Mountains on their tenth annual trip, Mack and his wife, Vonnie, find the magnificent woods and stunning mountains of Wyoming full of ghosts and danger. Mack comes from a long line of ranchers, and his dedication to keeping the family land has led him into penury and a life of crime. Vonnie is a fiercely intelligent, headstrong girl who came west for love, only to have it stolen from her bit by bit.
They've made this trip to say goodbye to each other, but as they navigate the trails they know so well, they come to understand the true nature of their wounds. And Mack has one more secret: he is trying to receive a signal and retrieve something that has fallen from the sky. It is a beacon that will lead them into a wood far darker than they've ever imagined. Ron Carlson's love for the mountains and his mastery of fiction radiate in the pages of this thrilling, fast-paced love story.
"The dense Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming is where Carlson (Five Skies) sets his brooding latest, a tale of expired love and desperate measures. Mack, son of a longtime rancher, has made many missteps in life, culminating in a recent stint in jail where 'he'd rusted like an old post when the weather turned.' While he's in jail, his recently ex-wife Vonnie agrees to join him one last time on their annual ritual of backpacking through the Wyoming wilderness to fish, camp and rediscover each other. Mack, though, has a hidden motive: a friend/technical genius has hired him to retrieve a valuable drone that's crash-landed in the forest. Carlson describes the couple's six days wandering the wooded terrain in delicate, measured prose, careful to miss neither the lush scenery nor the incrementally amplified tension as Mack edges closer to his prize and shady characters from the past appear. Carlson has produced a work of masterful fiction, combining the sad inevitability of a doomed relationship with sheer nail-biting suspense. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Back in olden days, before we started worrying about the survival of novels, we used to worry about the survival of novels for men. But that battle was lost so long ago that we should declare the field a national park and open a visitors' center (Look, kids — Norman Mailer published right on this spot!). Chuck Palahniuk and his "Pygmy" vibrator gags notwithstanding, polls suggest that only 20 percent... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of fiction readers are male. Ian McEwan warned in the Guardian that "when women stop reading, the novel will be dead." Well, don't blame the authors. Or even those supposedly mercenary, Oprah-chasing publishers. A couple of weeks ago, we ran a roundup of five novels about guys behaving badly — not psycho-legal thrillers but genuine works of literary fiction. A man's man couldn't go wrong picking from this list: funny, crazy, existential, libidinous — whatever he's after. And best of all, each one clocks in at around 200 pages, perfect for the commitment-phobic male. The latest addition to this burgeoning category of high-quality macho novellas comes from Ron Carlson, who writes like Hemingway without the misogyny and self-parody. If there's a smart man in your life who might still be tempted into the pleasures of contemporary literary fiction, "The Signal" could be just the gateway drug you're after. (Father's Day is June 21, and let's face it: Dad's not going to get through Bolano's "2666" no matter what you tell him.) Carlson's first love is short stories, and his expertise with that concentrated form shows in this well-toned novel, which covers six days of camping in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. His life-weary hero is a young man named Mack, recently released from a few weeks in jail that gave him time to dry out and reflect on his misery. Out of residual affection and maybe even a little pity, his ex-wife, Vonnie, has agreed to one final fishing trip, an annual September adventure they've maintained for almost a decade. "It's been a hideous year," Vonnie tells Mack, "and you hideous in it, but it's my word." Still, he's surprised when she shows up with her backpack ready, fishing pole and binoculars in hand. This is a woman for men who fantasize over the L.L. Bean catalogue rather than Victoria's Secret. She's tough and steady and doing her best to keep from falling back in love with Mack. Despite the beauty of these mountains, carved by glaciers and spotted with crystal lakes, their trip is tinged with nostalgia and the worn-out bitterness of a ruined marriage. "You're just full of ghosts," Vonnie tells him. For her, their 10th trek into the woods is a way to finally say goodbye; for Mack, it's a slender last chance, if not for reconciliation then at least for a fresh start in a place so pristine and majestic it just might start to heal him: "He felt like a man washed up on the beach after trying to drown himself." Given the plot and these cleanly cut sentences, it's impossible not to think of Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises," another fractured young man who retreated into the mountains to fish and pare his life down to a few deliberate routines. "Mack was not scared," Carlson writes. "He had been uneasy and worried and scared and empty and sort of ruined, and he knew this, but now he had his ways of doing one thing and then the next and it kept the ruin off him." There's a tragic kind of romance to Mack and Vonnie's comfortable inside jokes as they return for the last time to favorite haunts along the trail. They both know it'll be tough to go through the motions of their marriage's most cherished moments without scratching old wounds. But Mack "made himself one of his stone-cold promises that he would keep it light and tight and not get riled or ripped up." The story sometimes drifts back to Mack's childhood, on the ranch where he was raised by a man of few words and impeccable moral standards. His late father appears only in these flashbacks, but they're some of the novel's most moving scenes, a striking demonstration of Carlson's ability to be tough and tender at the same time. Memories of his father only deepen Mack's sense of humiliation for not being able to save the ranch or his marriage or his sobriety. "He'd had a headache or so it seemed for five years, always scraping by, eking out, scratching," Carlson writes in a voice that captures Mack's thoughts with mountain-air clarity. "The disappointment yawned and wore at him, something he never honored by calling it a name. He just let it burrow in and work him." The electric current that runs through "The Signal" is generated by Mack's ulterior motive for taking this trip. Whenever Vonnie turns her back, he checks his BlackBerry for an update. Clearly, he isn't just looking for cherished memories or even rekindled romance; he's searching for a lost piece of military equipment that some shady operators have paid him to locate in these mountains. The job is fraught with danger, but he imagines it's a chance to escape the debts that have crushed his ranch. Frightening implications of what this job entails are sprinkled subtly throughout the beginning of the novel, but Carlson's prose is so spare and free of ornament that every fleck of nervousness catches the light. When Vonnie looks up suddenly and asks, "What was that?" you're on high alert, and the tension only rises from there as Mack realizes what deadly trouble he's led them into. Carlson never drops an extra word or a false phrase, even as "The Signal" accelerates like an avalanche, suspicion rolling into fear and then roaring down with a conclusion that shakes the ground. If men can't be brought back to fiction by books as fine as this one, it's their own damn fault. You can follow Ron Charles on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roncharles. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Like Rick Bass and Jim Harrison, Carlson writes about the natural world with convincing authority.... The Signal takes us into terrain that's stunning and terrible. In doing so, it becomes both an elegy to a broken marriage and a heart-stopping, suspenseful thriller." Jennifer Gilmore, The New York Times Book Review
Carlson's love for the mountains and his mastery of fiction radiate in the pages of this thrilling, fast-paced love story.
"The Signal accelerates like an avalanche...If men can't be brought back to fiction by books as fine as this one, it's their own damn fault."
-The Washington Post
Ron Carlson, author of the critically acclaimed Five Skies, is an award-winning writer beloved by booksellers, reviewers, and readers alike. His most thrilling book to date, The Signal follows the story of Mack and Vonnie, a married couple who, after ten years together, are taking their last hike in the mountains of Wyoming to say goodbye to their relationship and to each other. As the troubled and tragic elements of their past gradually come to light over the course of their journey, Mack keeps a secret: he is tracking a signal, sent via a beacon that has fallen from the sky, that will lead them both into a wood far darker than they have ever imagined.
A beautifully written and suspenseful tale of love and peril by an award-winning writer.
About the Author
Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of four story collections and four novels, most recently Five Skies. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, and GQ, and has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts as well as in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His novella, “Beanball,” was recently selected for Best American Mystery Stories. He is the director of the UC Irvine writing program and lives in Huntington Beach, California.
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