Friday, August 14, 2009

Western Love

Good news – another Ron Carlson book has arrived. Our Book Club recently read and loved his “Five Skies” - spare but elegant prose, beautifully rendered characters, wonderful descriptions of the stark beauty of the western landscape. Does The Signal deliver more of the same? It does.

As before, we have a strong but damaged man. This time his name is Mack, and his struggles to hold on to his family's Wyoming ranch have led him to crime and alcohol, and have cost him his marriage. Now he has a chance for some semblance of peace and redemption. His ex-wife Vonnie has agreed to take one last fishing trip with him in the mountains, a trip they have taken each September for ten years. But Mack has another motive. He is secretly receiving a signal on his hidden Blackberry that may lead him to a piece of equipment his shady employer wants to recover. Carlson doesn't reveal much detail about this mission, but as the trip progresses the tension mounts, and the book becomes both the examination of a failed marriage and a terrifying thriller.

What can I say about Carlson's prose? One critic calls him “Hemingway without the misogyny and self-parody”. He has wonderful descriptions of the Wind River range, a glacier-carved mountain range in central Wyoming (I was there once and can attest to its stark beauty). Through flashbacks he shows us how Mack got to where he is. These include understated but emotional scenes with his father, whose sudden death still haunts Mack, and warm and funny scenes of his early romance with Vonnie. Does it pack the wallop that “Five Skies” did for me? Maybe not quite. The characters are a little less complex and nuanced, the plot a little more revved up. But I'm nitpicking. Ron Carlson's taut, elegant writing is a joy to read.

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