Ron Carlson is director of the creative-writing program at the University of California at Irvine, where he dispenses advice gleaned from the long run of his professional career. That career has been enviable: four novels (including the brilliant “Five Skies”) and five collections of short stories (“At the Jim Bridger” is a typically strong example). So when Carlson teaches those students, he’s drawing his lessons from an impressive body of work. I’m sure he offers gentle admonitions against the usual freshman excesses: Don’t overwrite, don’t be predictable, don’t indulge in tired cliches.
All of which makes Carlson’s latest novel, “Return to Oakpine,” that much more confounding, because it’s full of predictable, cliched overwriting — and yet it’s as stirring and memorable and utterly rejuvenating a novel as you’ll read.
It’s the story of four high school friends in small-town Oakpine, Wyo., who briefly came together in a goofy-earnest rock band called Life on Earth before a tragedy and a graduation scattered them to their adult lives. Solid, dependable Craig and Frank became local businessmen; smart, sarcastic Mason left town to become a lawyer; and gay, intellectual Jimmy went all the way to New York, where he became a successful author of novels and theater reviews. When “Return to Oakpine” opens, Jimmy, having lost his longtime lover and in the final stages of a wasting illness, is coming back to his home town to die. Although Jimmy’s saintly mother welcomes him back, his bitter, working-class father won’t have him in the house. So Craig fixes up a room in their garage. When Mason also comes back to Oakpine, there’s quickly talk of, yes, getting the band back together.
Is Jimmy still a prickly outsider? Are long-buried conflicts resolved? Does everybody find reinvention? Do Jimmy and his father reconcile?
Once you’ve read the first 50 pages of “Return to Oakpine,” you can accurately answer all those questions and any others that come up. When any two characters get together for coffee, they inevitably start swapping down-home, fortune-cookie lines such as “Life goes fast. There’re some bumps.” When a smart, young woman wants to become a writer, she starts to talk in Ron Carlson-style, back-country earnestness: “No one knew where I was, my folks . . . no one, and then I thought, no one knows my heart, what’s in it. Not even me.” When Craig’s son, Larry, strides off the playing field, he thinks, “I’m tall and strong,” even though teenage boys haven’t thought that way since the “Odyssey.”
Even the prose varies wildly, from trademark sparse poetry to some luridly bad phrasing — sometimes in the same sentence: “He felt a sickening pain rinse through his body, as if he’d spilled something on his shirt; he wasn’t able to be able to be able.” Oakpine is a fantasyland, beautifully evoked (“Over everything in the West, the sky was purple at the horizon, blowing up to gray”) but so silted with black-and-white moral certainties that it might as well be Narnia.
In other words, this novel shouldn’t work. It should collapse under the weight of its cliches and overwriting and become something close to a parody. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Carlson infuses these pages with such conviction, such perfectly orchestrated pathos, that the plot’s predictability becomes irrelevant. His characters have undergone a collective trauma, and it’s held some of them in an unhealthy stasis for years. Jimmy’s return breaks the spell his departure once cast, and Carlson masterfully dramatizes the speed with which things then start to happen. The book is as lean and structured as a sonnet, and it has a split-focus climax as sharp as an ax.
“When was the last time anybody did one extra thing,” a character wonders, “a bona fide extra?” “Return to Oakpine” has that indefinable bona fide extra something — that storyteller’s knack. If Carlson can teach that to his students, more power to him.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
RETURN TO OAKPINE
By Ron Carlson
Viking. 264 pp. $25.95