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Esquire
Wednesday, June 13th, 2007
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Five Skies: A Novel

by Ron Carlson

How to Rebuild a Broken Man

A review by Alison Glock

Ron Carlson writes about men. Solid, genuine, worn men. Men eclipsed by current culture, men of substance and heft, men we could all stand to spend more time with, lest we forget they exist.

The three men in Five Skies, Carlson's first novel in 26 years, meet in weakness. One has fled an affair with his sister-in-law, another is grieving the untimely passing of his wife, the third escaping a life of petty crime. The men converge on an isolated Idaho bluff, high in the Rocky Mountains, ostensibly to collaborate on a summerlong construction project. They proceed inadvertently to rebuild themselves.

These are, of course, men who say what they mean and little else. Carlson telegraphs volumes via small gestures and clipped phrases, as when one friend asks the other, "You ever fold clothes with a woman?" The answer: "No, I have not. I came close a time or two, I think."

Much of the story is devoted to describing the crew's daily chores: the machinations of post-hole digging, of asphalt paving, of iron welding, of sandwich making. No detail is too small; every minutia serves stunning purpose, reminding us of nothing less than what ultimately matters in this life: the quiet salvation of work. The value of mastering a tangible skill. The power of holding something in your hands, something you can control.

"And so their days ended with this regard for their tools and the days began, as they squinted over coffee, in the exhilarating open air knowing where the shovel was, the chain, the awl."

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, whether in the cliffs of Idaho or the canyons of the city. And Five Skies offers a longed-for blueprint of the antidote. The three men are all saved, in their own way, by utility and geography. Their egos are dwarfed by the landscape, their hearts unburdened by the simple thrill of a task completed. 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.


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