Book Review: Ron Charles on 'The Signal' by Ron Carlson

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, June 3, 2009


By Ron Carlson

Viking. 184 pp. $25.95

Back in olden days, before we started worrying about the survival of novels, we used to worry about the survival of novels for men. But that battle was lost so long ago that we should declare the field a national park and open a visitors' center (Look, kids -- Norman Mailer published right on this spot!). Chuck Palahniuk and his "Pygmy" vibrator gags notwithstanding, polls suggest that only 20 percent of fiction readers are male. Ian McEwan warned in the Guardian that "when women stop reading, the novel will be dead."

Well, don't blame the authors. Or even those supposedly mercenary, Oprah-chasing publishers. A couple of weeks ago, we ran a roundup of five novels about guys behaving badly -- not psycho-legal thrillers but genuine works of literary fiction. A man's man couldn't go wrong picking from this list: funny, crazy, existential, libidinous -- whatever he's after. And best of all, each one clocks in at around 200 pages, perfect for the commitment-phobic male.

The latest addition to this burgeoning category of high-quality macho novellas comes from Ron Carlson, who writes like Hemingway without the misogyny and self-parody. If there's a smart man in your life who might still be tempted into the pleasures of contemporary literary fiction, "The Signal" could be just the gateway drug you're after. (Father's Day is June 21, and let's face it: Dad's not going to get through BolaƱo's "2666" no matter what you tell him.)

Carlson's first love is short stories, and his expertise with that concentrated form shows in this well-toned novel, which covers six days of camping in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. His life-weary hero is a young man named Mack, recently released from a few weeks in jail that gave him time to dry out and reflect on his misery. Out of residual affection and maybe even a little pity, his ex-wife, Vonnie, has agreed to one final fishing trip, an annual September adventure they've maintained for almost a decade. "It's been a hideous year," Vonnie tells Mack, "and you hideous in it, but it's my word." Still, he's surprised when she shows up with her backpack ready, fishing pole and binoculars in hand. This is a woman for men who fantasize over the L.L. Bean catalogue rather than Victoria's Secret. She's tough and steady and doing her best to keep from falling back in love with Mack.

Despite the beauty of these mountains, carved by glaciers and spotted with crystal lakes, their trip is tinged with nostalgia and the worn-out bitterness of a ruined marriage. "You're just full of ghosts," Vonnie tells him. For her, their 10th trek into the woods is a way to finally say goodbye; for Mack, it's a slender last chance, if not for reconciliation then at least for a fresh start in a place so pristine and majestic it just might start to heal him: "He felt like a man washed up on the beach after trying to drown himself." Given the plot and these cleanly cut sentences, it's impossible not to think of Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises," another fractured young man who retreated into the mountains to fish and pare his life down to a few deliberate routines. "Mack was not scared," Carlson writes. "He had been uneasy and worried and scared and empty and sort of ruined, and he knew this, but now he had his ways of doing one thing and then the next and it kept the ruin off him."

There's a tragic kind of romance to Mack and Vonnie's comfortable inside jokes as they return for the last time to favorite haunts along the trail. They both know it'll be tough to go through the motions of their marriage's most cherished moments without scratching old wounds. But Mack "made himself one of his stone-cold promises that he would keep it light and tight and not get riled or ripped up."

The story sometimes drifts back to Mack's childhood, on the ranch where he was raised by a man of few words and impeccable moral standards. His late father appears only in these flashbacks, but they're some of the novel's most moving scenes, a striking demonstration of Carlson's ability to be tough and tender at the same time. Memories of his father only deepen Mack's sense of humiliation for not being able to save the ranch or his marriage or his sobriety. "He'd had a headache or so it seemed for five years, always scraping by, eking out, scratching," Carlson writes in a voice that captures Mack's thoughts with mountain-air clarity. "The disappointment yawned and wore at him, something he never honored by calling it a name. He just let it burrow in and work him."

The electric current that runs through "The Signal" is generated by Mack's ulterior motive for taking this trip. Whenever Vonnie turns her back, he checks his BlackBerry for an update. Clearly, he isn't just looking for cherished memories or even rekindled romance; he's searching for a lost piece of military equipment that some shady operators have paid him to locate in these mountains. The job is fraught with danger, but he imagines it's a chance to escape the debts that have crushed his ranch.

Frightening implications of what this job entails are sprinkled subtly throughout the beginning of the novel, but Carlson's prose is so spare and free of ornament that every fleck of nervousness catches the light. When Vonnie looks up suddenly and asks, "What was that?" you're on high alert, and the tension only rises from there as Mack realizes what deadly trouble he's led them into. Carlson never drops an extra word or a false phrase, even as "The Signal" accelerates like an avalanche, suspicion rolling into fear and then roaring down with a conclusion that shakes the ground. If men can't be brought back to fiction by books as fine as this one, it's their own damn fault.

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