BOOK: The Signal by Ron Carlson (2009)

This short novel is about a guy named Mack who, as the story opens, has just started putting his life back together after a few dramatically bad years.

It all started when, several years prior, Mack’s father died, leaving the family ranch to his son.  Married to his soul mate Vonnie and now in charge of his beloved father’s beloved ranch, Mack thinks he’s got it made, despite a nagging feeling that his father’s death has left everything “tilted, weird. . .”  This tilt begins to turn into a collapse  when Mack runs out of money and turns to crime to try to keep the ranch alive.  He soon finds himself running errands for a local band of bad guys, and when he finally lands himself in jail, Vonnie files for divorce and begins the work of moving on.  (Brutal, brutish work, that.)

It had been their autumn ritual for over a decade to go hiking, fishing, and camping together in the mountains of Wyoming.  When this year rolls around, just weeks after Mack’s release, Vonnie reluctantly agrees to join him for one last trip — to get some closure, heal some wounds, help them both go forward.

At first, things in the mountains go surprisingly well.  Though their conversations are strained at times, and occasionally tinged with the anger, bitterness, or regret that so often comes with breaking up, overall the couple seems to click back into a peaceful place.  They feel good together again.  A complicated happy, but a happy nonetheless.  There’s hope here, Mack thinks — maybe there’s some hope here after all.

The only problem is that Mack’s agreed to do one last thing for the bad guys and he’s trying desperately to keep Vonnie from finding out.  She becomes quickly suspicious, though, when he keeps checking his Blackberry for a signal — and then she becomes quickly enraged.  She packs her stuff and walks away, leaving Mack behind and alone again.

Right before this blow-out, though, the two had stumbled into the camp of some poachers.  It’s clear from their set-up that the poachers have been at it for months, a crime for which they’d serve some serious time.  Poachers are not known for their friendliness, alas, and when they discover they’ve been discovered, they snatch Vonnie off the trail, sending Mack into a frenzy.

Things get bad, and fast.  And then later, they get better.  You’ll see.  But while the plot of this novel is definitely good, it was really the writing that struck me the most.  It’s frequently spare, which somehow gives it a very masculine quality — in that way, it occasionally reminded me of Hemingway, which is not always a good thing, but which worked very well here.

Even better, sometimes Carlson turns a phrase like poetry, using only a few words to paint a picture worth a thousand.  Like when he describes Mack as feeling “like a man washed up on the beach after trying to drown himself.”   Or the sunlight at Valentine Lake turning from “gray to gold in one minute, like a sail filling with wind.”

The writing is not always as strong as I’m making it sound; there were a few places when it felt more clunky than stylistically spare.  But Carlson’s deft hand at description, both of human emotion and of nature’s beauty, matched with an intense storyline about a couple struggling with their respective battles of hearts v. brains, together resulted in a book I greatly enjoyed.

Definitely recommended, and I look forward to reading more by this author soon.


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