Ron Carlson is one of our most celebrated short story writers and the director of UC Irvine's well-respected MFA program. Now, with FIVE SKIES, his first adult novel in more than 20 years, Carlson offers readers a polished, understated book that incorporates the elegance and pared-down nature of a short story into the drama of a longer fiction work.
High in the mountains and buttes of southern Idaho, three men gather to work on a massive construction project. Darwin and Arthur, the two older individuals, bring a lifetime of hard work and heartbreak to their approach to the project. Darwin, whose beloved wife has recently passed away, refuses to return to the nearby ranch where they lived for decades. Arthur, the massive loner from southern California, has walked away from a lucrative career creating special effects for Hollywood movies after he committed what he views as an unforgivable betrayal of his shiftless brother. The third person on the project, Ronnie Panelli, is an inexperienced young man who already has plenty of problems of his own. Ronnie has a tendency to run away when things get tough, but he also has an easy tongue and a childlike eagerness to learn new skills, both of which might be just what the other men need to bring them out of their individual sorrows and into a shared experience of what could be called friendship.
The greatest catalyst for all three men, however, is their shared project. Their assignment is to build a motorcycle ramp from the plateau out over a stunningly deep river canyon, in order to stage a media event a la Evel Knievel (the metaphorical richness of this "road to nowhere" is evident throughout the novel). As the two older, taciturn men convey their knowledge and experience to eager (and eager-to-please) Ronnie, as they join forces to design and construct this foolhardy, almost absurd project, the three discover, or rediscover, the simple pleasures and sources of pride inherent in the act of creation, no matter how fruitless.
The narrative tendency to switch perspectives rapidly among the three men may be disorienting at first, but readers will soon settle into this storytelling style and be able to enjoy the wonders of Carlson's brilliantly simple, matter-of-fact use of language. His description of the work of welding and of carpentry, his depiction of Ronnie's pride and the other men's good-natured ribbing following the young man's construction of a dinner table strong enough to hold an elephant grant manual labor the sort of serious consideration with which few of us regard it these days.
Most of all, Carlson's vivid and poetic representations of the Idaho landscape, its changeable weather, and, yes, its variable skies create what could be regarded as another main character: "As always in some ebony quadrant of the sky there were ghosted flashes of an electrical storm blooming like small stars and some nights two storms north and south so far distant as to seem tricks of the eye." All these elements combine to create a novel of exquisite richness and pared-down elegance, in which few words are wasted but volumes of wisdom are conveyed.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 29, 2008