Review

The Signal

by Ron Carlson

There’s more intense action crammed into Ron
Carlson’s brief new novel than in many works twice its
length. Couple that with two complex and absorbing protagonists and
gorgeous writing that pays homage to the natural world, and you
have a deeply appealing work that’s easy to appreciate on a
variety of levels.

For each of the last 10 years, Mack and Vonnie have rendezvoused
on September 15th for a few days of camping and fishing at Clark
Lake, in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming, where winter
edges in even before the arrival of fall. After eight years of
marriage, the two have divorced, but they’ve agreed to
reenact this ritual a final time. Mack, the son of a rancher, has
fallen on hard times. After his father's death, he has sold off
two-thirds of the ranch’s acreage and has closed the dude
ranch where he met Vonnie as a teenager when she came west in the
summertime. Failing as a bookstore owner and computer consultant,
Mack has descended into the grim and dangerous job of drug running
while battling alcoholism. His impulsive decision to apply an iron
pipe to the windshield of Vonnie’s boyfriend’s car
lands him in jail for 20 days, and he is about as close to the
bottom as he can get.

Mack and Vonnie’s idyll begins calmly enough, as they
traverse mountain trails and fish for trout in shimmering lakes,
the tensions of their fractured relationship simmering just under
the surface. But when they stumble across some elk poachers with
ties to Mack’s drug work, their trip takes on a decidedly
darker and more violent turn. Vonnie injures her leg in the attempt
to escape, and after traveling together for a time they decide to
split up in the hope of eluding their pursuers.

To complicate matters, Mack’s fishing trip isn’t
entirely for pleasure. A sinister figure named Yarnell, for whom
Mack had previously forwarded coded computer messages, has hired
him to spot what Yarnell describes as a crashed drone aircraft.
Yarnell has provided a GPS-equipped BlackBerry to help Mack spot
the downed craft. His reward is $10,000 if he brings back the
drone’s mysterious cargo intact and $5,000 simply for
locating the plane. But when Mack, in the midst of his escape,
finally finds it, he makes a frightening discovery that thrusts him
even deeper into danger.

Carlson doesn’t overplay the cat-and-mouse game as Mack
and Vonnie flee on foot down the mountain with several ruthless and
determined men on horseback and in helicopters on their heels. Yet
there are enough hairsbreadth escapes and a powerful sense of
uncertainty about the plot’s resolution to propel the story
forward to its intense conclusion.

Inseparable from the novel’s tightly-constructed plot is
Carlson’s deep engagement with the natural environment, the
“wild rough top of the world” where the story unfolds.
On almost every page, it seems, there’s a fresh, closely
observed detail. From the “sound like a river rock walking
down a stream bottom” to the sky he describes as a
“gray pillowed gridlock,” or the chilly dawn that
offers “no heat in the planks of sunlight,”
Carlson’s grasp of metaphor is sure and impressive in the
vivid images he consistently summons. That control isn’t
limited to mere abstract description of the ravishing natural
phenomena that form the story’s setting. He firmly grounds
his characters in that starkly beautiful world. Describing how Mack
experiences an approaching twilight, Carlson observes, “The
angle of light grew fragile; it made him want to hurry. It had
always called to him, and now it hurt. You always felt time as a
tangible heartbeat in the mountains. The days were
short.”

No doubt some readers will hear echoes of Ernest Hemingway or
Cormac McCarthy in THE SIGNAL's clean, tightly-controlled prose and
its story of the small scale of human travails when played out
against the gorgeous but unforgiving natural world. Yet it would be
a disservice to Ron Carlson to suggest that this accomplished work
is in any way derivative of these masters. In truth, he has created
something equally masterful of his own.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

The Signal
by Ron Carlson

  • Publication Date: May 25, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117556
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117551