Three men stand at the edge of a remote river gorge in
That's the sum total of Ron Carlson's first novel in 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 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 instances, 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, for instance, 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.
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.
“Amid the hairy navel-gazing, the methodical work of engineering goes on unabated.”
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
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: Idaho
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.
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
The whole book, really, is about three men searching for ways to span the emotional chasms that have, in various ways, isolated them from the rest of society. Here, in the high
This review was originally published in January Magazine.
Reviewer David Abrams is the author of Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq War (Grove/Atlantic) that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic.” His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review, and other literary quarterlies. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana, with his wife. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com. (Author photo courtesy Lisa Wareham Photography.)