by Ron Carlson
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
Ron Carlson's the kind of writer who's easy to underestimate. His short fiction is consistently excellent, and his casual, unpretentious style is reinforced by his reputation as a teacher, first at Arizona State and now at the University of California at Irvine. His creative technique is available for all to see in Ron Carlson Writes a Story, a short book based on one of his lectures that explains how he wrote a story called "The Governor's Ball."
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?
He's right there behind the curtain, working the levers of imagination. So is Carlson, who's taken his writing in exciting new directions. After 20 years and four short-story collections, he wrote a tender young-adult novel called The Speed of Light (2003) that was based on his childhood in Salt Lake City and followed it with two short novels set in the mountainous West, Five Skies (2007) and The Signal.
Five Skies is about damaged men from different backgrounds brought together to build a ramp so a daredevil can jump a motorcycle across an Idaho canyon. Its subdued plot and emphasis on describing men at work were anathema to time-challenged readers; others found its silences as captivating as a moonless night.
The Signal has more action, including meth dealers, poachers, kidnapping and the search for an ultrasecret experimental plane owned by a shady industrialist who yells threats to the hero from a helicopter. At its core, though, it's another story about a troubled man trying to work his way back to true north. His name is Mack, and his dream of living peacefully on the dude ranch his father built is knocked off course by circumstances, some external and some of his own making. He goes on a backpacking and fishing trip in the Wind River Range with his ex-wife, Vonnie, a journey meant to recapture the past and establish a common future.
Mack brings trouble along, in the form of a BlackBerry that will lead him to the wreckage of the downed plane. It's a fool's errand, done for money and in secret, and leads to complications that test Mack's mettle and Carlson's ability to write action scenes.
The author is on much firmer ground describing the landscape and the fragile relationship between Mack and Vonnie. Flashbacks unfold skillfully and fill in the plot as the characters hike into lakes that would make Nick Adams drool:
He watched rings begin to appear around the perimeter, ten, then a hundred, as fish tested the world. He'd seen the surface flies yesterday, almost invisible tiny white gnats that trout preferred to his ungainly homemade fuzzballs. He'd never operated at the keen center of fly-fishing, the way the guides and dandies did in Jackson. He'd seen their product, so precise and elegant it seemed like watchmaking, and the flies themselves looked like a fabulous meeting of jewelry and semiconductors. He had always tied one fly, brown and coarse and big as a whisk broom, his father used to say. Grab a couple and sweep the barn. But, and this made his father smile too, they worked.
Mack's father is a lodestar whose wisdom leads his son toward what's right. The other moral power is the stories Mack tells, first to the clients at the ranch and then to those in need. And as Carlson knows, everyone needs a good story.