Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Men at Work: Five Skies by Ron Carlson

As I was reading Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend by Leigh Montville, my thoughts naturally turned to the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, which led me straight back to Ron Carlson's excellent 2007 novel Five Skies.  While Montville's biography is as flashy as Evel's cape and cane, Carlson's novel does its work quietly and just as effectively.  Carlson is one of our most dependable and largely overlooked writers still pecking away at a keyboard.  His collection of short stories At the Jim Bridger is not to be missed.

Here's a review of Five Skies I wrote for January Magazine in 2007.

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Three men stand at the edge of a remote river gorge in Idaho, about to begin work on a summer construction project: a large wooden ramp at the lip of the canyon, built for a motorcycle stuntwoman who plans to jump the canyon, a la Evel Knievel.  The three men are relative strangers to each other, but before the summer is over, they will bond in ways none of them could have predicted.

That's the sum total of Ron Carlson's first novel* in nearly thirty years, Five Skies.  It's a beautiful, patiently-moving narrative about the value of hard work and the way flawed men come to grips with their personal demons.  Each of these three men are running from something: the gigantic man-of-few-words Arthur Key, who used to build collapsible sets for movies and who can't shake feelings of guilt over a recent death; Darwin Gallegos, the former ranch-hand at Rio Difficulto, where the men are building the ramp, and who won't let go of the stabbing pain of his wife's death in a plane crash five months earlier; and Ronnie Panelli, a nineteen-year-old petty thief who is trying to mend the error of his ways.

The men are each, in their own stoic way, trying to heal themselves by plunging into a summer of hard labor.  Arthur, for instance, reveals this to us early in the novel: He told himself he was trying to regroup, to get a grip, but he now knew, after this time away from the life he had ruined, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.  The bulk of the novel demonstrates how three tough but sensitive men go about untying the knots that bind them to past sorrows and mistakes.

Amid the hairy navel-gazing, the methodical work of engineering goes on unabated.  Save for a few trips into the nearby town of (aptly-named) Mercy, the action is confined to the job site on the wind-swept plateau.  Even here, Carlson finds poetry in the muscular world of construction, filling Five Skies with precise details of the labor and materials involved in building a structure that will, in essence, be a one-shot wonder.  Here is one paragraph planted early in the book when Arthur goes shopping at the local hardware store:
He had a list in his pocket and he began assembling the items: wooden stakes; heavy twine; steel hinges; two hundred yards of the rope; a one-inch tempered steel drill bit; forty-yard-long dowels, diameter one inch; a basket of steel fittings; boxes of wood screws; bags of brads; a roof stapler and staples; five gallons of wood sealer; five gallons of white enamel; spray enamel, white, black red; coarse-bristle paintbrushes; four paint rollers with extension handles; ten bags of posthole mix; five gallons of creosote; and a shopping cart of miscellaneous small tools, including chisels, a rasp and a fine Stanley wood plane.

The novel is a literary blueprint of work, the diary of one summer of sweat and sore muscles.  The men carefully clear brush from the site, dig post-holes, hammer sheets of lumber together and smooth asphalt for the runway.  They are proud of their work, but are always reminded that it's just a job and that soon the summer will end and they will drift away from the site and, most likely, from each other. There is one particularly telling scene when they travel to the other side of the canyon and look back on the half-built ramp:
Key was sobered by the panorama, and the vastness smothered his notions that the project might succeed. It was one thing, and a good thing, to secure a rail or build a step, but under the pressing sky and against this thousand-mile wind, and across the red and violet vacuum of the rocky chasm, every nail they'd pounded seemed a waste of time. The three men stood in the soft sand near the lip of rock in their sunglasses and looked across at this little jobsite.

The physical labor may take center stage, but it's the personal growth of each character we're most interested in.  Carlson unfolds those revelations little by little, not playing his whole hand all at once.

These characters, these men, are kind and patient with each other—something you don't typically find in the predominantly cynical fiction of today.  This is wholly refreshing to read and lends Five Skies a sweet but melancholy air that lingers even after you've set the book down and gone about the rest of your day's business.  Arthur, Darwin and Ronnie are guaranteed to stay with you for a long time, that's how magnificent a job Carlson has done in creating these three men.

The wind-swept plains of Idaho will also be burned into your imagination.  There are beautiful, compelling scenes—especially one in which the men descend into the canyon on a fishing trip—that have the power to take your breath away.  Here is a passage that's typical of the way in which the land resonates into the story:
They had woken to the sky a perfect trick, a magnified color well beyond cobalt. Tangible and tender, the air and the earth after the rain seemed minted, some rare promise in the leverage of the early sunshine. Rags of mist stood twisting in the atmosphere.

Those sentences also point to one of the novel's minor flaws: a complicated syntax that often calls attention to itself and reminds us that a writer is at work, sweating over these sentences as he pounds them into place.  Those moments are few and far between, however, and Five Skies succeeds best when Carlson relaxes and lets the story proceed transparently and without interference.

Carlson uses metaphor subtly and effectively, knowing just when to slip in an image that will echo beyond itself.  Arthur, for instance, is initially disappointed that the project is a motorcycle stunt ramp and he tells Darwin, "I was really hoping this would be a bridge.  That would have been more than I could chew, but I was hoping."

The whole book, really, is about three men searching for ways to span the emotional chasms which have, in various ways, isolated them from the rest of society.  Here, in the high Idaho plateau country, they will do their best to overcome past mistakes; some will succeed, others will be cut short by new tragedies, but the point is that they're trying.  They are men at work on their souls and it's a testament to Carlson's talent that he's able to make this inner journey as exciting to watch as any high-octane testosterone action movie.

*Since this review was written, Carlson has come out with another good (but not as great) novel, The Signal.

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