by Ron Carlson
Published by Viking
244 pages, 2007
Men at Work
Reviewed by David Abrams
Three men stand at the edge of a remote river gorge in Idaho. They're 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 Five Skies, Ron Carlson's first novel in 30 years. 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 19-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:
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, for instance, is one paragraph planted early in the book when Arthur goes shopping at the local hardware store:
Five Skies 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:
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 windswept 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:
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. | August 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.