Ron Carlson is probably the best American writer you’ve never heard of. I say probably because it’s not like he’s been hiding. There have been seven volumes of fiction; short stories in The New Yorker, GQ, Harper’s; and the kind of extravagant praise (“a life-changing work of fiction,” said the Los Angeles Times of his excellent 2007 novel Five Skies) that gets you noticed.
When our protagonist Mack checks a “military BlackBerry” stashed in his pack, it’s a clue that this won’t be a simple walk in the woods.
Still, my guess is his name doesn’t ring a lot of bells, even in well-read households. (My wife saw me with his latest and said, “I’ve read Ron Carlson…haven’t I? Wait, have I?”) One problem might be that Ron Carlson is (to my ear) a peculiarly frictionless three syllables, plus there’s the acclaimed writer Ron Hansen not to confuse him with, plus Carlson’s work is set in states like Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming—lonely, wide-open places the East Coast literary set (admit it) rarely pays much attention to. (Exception: Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories—but her reputation was made with a novel about Newfoundland.)
In any case, it’s unjust: Carlson’s stories and novels are superb, taking as their subject, generally, the psyche of the American man and the dignity of hard work. And his brilliant new novel, The Signal, is a landscape portrait of Wyoming, a paean to camping and a wound-up little thriller all in one. If you’re new to Carlson, here’s the way to get acquainted.
At a trim 184 pages, The Signal doesn’t waste time. On a chilly September evening at a Wind River Range trailhead, our protagonist Mack awaits his ex-wife Vonnie. He’s hoping she will join him for their annual four-day camping and fishing trip, but there’s been trouble between them, a separation, jail time for Mack, and she might not show. We don’t have all the details, but when Mack checks a “military BlackBerry” stashed in his pack, it’s a clue that this won’t be a simple walk in the woods.
Desperate for money, Mack is doing a favor for a shady friend: trying to locate a signal-emitting piece of hardware lost in the mountains. The mysteries of the novel unfold in a compelling way, so I won’t reveal more, except to say there are bad guys out there and Mack will have to employ all of his skills as an outdoorsman to keep him and Vonnie safe from harm.
Those skills are considerable. The Wind River is wild, remote country, but Mack, an ex-rancher, is at home in it, and one of the many pleasures of the book is witnessing him adeptly whip up pancakes, eggs, or fresh trout on the trail. The descriptions of the natural landscape—a Carlson hallmark—are vivid: morning frost lying “in paisley patterns throughout the wood” or trout in a lake “urgently ascending through the lighted panes of water.”
I lost hours to this book—too few, alas. Still, for a short novel, there’s plenty to chew on. Carlson’s two leads are satisfyingly complex. Vonnie is tough and vulnerable. Mack’s flaws are evident—he’s betrayed Vonnie and involved himself with some rough customers—but there’s a calm nobility about him even so. The book builds to an exciting, shoot-‘em-up climax (not enough of those in literary fiction), and then, against all odds, hands us a happy ending.
Last thing: Mack is coping with the death of his father, a stern man who taught him how to behave, how to survive in the woods, how to be good. Mack’s memories of the man and his yearning to measure up are the most affecting passages in the book—which makes The Signal—ta-da!—the perfect gift for Father’s Day.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.