Monday, May 28, 2007

five skies

Our book today is Ron Carlson's "Five Skies," the author's first novel in a mind-boggling thirty years. In fact, the length of the interval makes it tempting to chuck the bio, call the slate clean, and just consider this as we would any first novel.

Except that you aren't five pages into this book before it becomes abundantly clear that this would be a very improbably remarkable first novel indeed. This is the work of a man who's seen the world and known heartbreak, and it contains sad wisdoms and beautiful insights which for very good reasons aren't often vouchsafed to the young.

The book is short (really a novella, if by that term we mean what's customarily meant, which is a work of yearling length capable of being read in the interval between two meals)(where WERE you all, before we here at Stevereads began ladling out these handy definitions?), and its plot is simple: in the gorgeous, forbidding wilderness of the Idaho Rockies, three men are engaged in building a giant ramp for a future daredevil stunt.

The three men are foreman Darwin Gallegos and his two hired hands, enormous, taciturn Arthur Key and young, skinny Ronnie Panelli, and each of them comes to the job from a fractured past. Key and Gallegos come from full-blown tragedies (Key's is very nearly overwhelming), but in many ways Carlson's craft is at its best in portraying Ronnie, who's twenty years younger than his co-workers but considerably scarred by ten years of neglect, indifference, and petty larcenies.

These three men come together to raise a ramp, and in the ensuing months, as they come to know each other, the most delicate flower in the garden of human relationships - adult male friendship - begins to blossom.

As some of you may know, this is a subject of particular interest to us here at Stevereads, not only for its intrinsic human value but also for how seldom it's been conveyed in fiction with any degree of accuracy. "Lonesome Dove," of course, does it with a degree of skill probably unsurpassed in the 20th Century, but the epic sweep of that work makes the task seem curiously easy. It's a very different thing when your fictive scale is as small as that of "Five Skies" - three damaged men brought together in the hinterland to construct a unique oddity.

It's slowly, gradually, heart-rendingly developed in these comparatively few pages, but it's developed for the ages. This feels on every page like an an immortal work.

Despite the heavy freight carried by his various subplot flashbacks, the book's main strength is on display mostly in the little moments, the invisible, almost imperceptible emotional shiftings that take place when friendships are starting to form between strangers. Carlson gets these little moments right every single time.

There's a lovely scene that illustrates this and very much more. Our three men are high in the Rockies, and there's a small array of roast beef sandwiches for lunch. After helpfully supplying us with the very true line that "White wine is not for drinking. White wine is something to do with your hands," Carlson gives us a scene in which Key and Gallegos discover that Panelli has consumed all the food in sight:

"'What then, you eat the whole damn thing?' And in a flash Panelli's face took it as accusation, as it had taken everything said to it for years and years and years, ten years at least of his twenty, but then something happened that had never happened to him before, because he took it in as accusation and it changed to something that showed on his face as pride, really what is called a shit-eating grin rose despite his galled determination to hate Key forever for having thrown him down this morning. There was a half second when Darwin watched and then without deciding to, he led them into the laughter which rang there.

'You're goddamn right, I ate it,' Panelli said. 'I came back here looking for another'

'You deserve it,' Key told him. 'Look at that house.' They turned to take in the large white tent, the only edifice in the round world.

'I know,' Panelli said. 'Look at that wood; somebody cut that up.' Unbidden in his voice were the first naked notes of pride, joyous and sobering. 'That saw is wild.' "

This is a very small story set against a very large backdrop - Carlson has a keen eye for describing nature - but it feels all the more poignant for that. If this same story were taking place between three strangers during the heat of battle at Gettsyburg, something important would be missing from the magic.

As it is, this beautiful little novella is a book to be heartily recommended - not to go to your local Barnes & Noble and BUY, mind you, since paying $25 for something so small would be tantamount to an obscenity (you could get TWENTY-FIVE books for that at the Brattle!), but certainly to anticipate in paperback, or even to ... ulp ... borrow from the library. In the coming weeks, it's bound to be reviewed glowingly in all the usual outlets, and to those praises you can add the greatest praise of all: the awe-inspiring fact that Stevereads looked upon the work and said, "That'll do, pig."


Jeff E. said...

"That'll do, pig."

Oh, I have not laughed in front of my computer screen like that in a long time. Whew!

steve said...

I still got it, baby!