Viking: 184 pp., $25.95
Ron Carlson’s new novel is a love story and a wilderness adventure that mounts to a climax of shocking, and satisfying, violence. It’s a tale from the woods and it begins when Mack, a young Wyoming rancher who’s been messing himself up and has just gotten out of jail, arranges to meet his estranged wife, Vonnie, for a trek into the Wind River mountain range he knows so well.
This has been a routine for the two of them, a yearly rite, and at first Mack wonders whether Vonnie will show. But Vonnie takes her word seriously, and she does arrive (intending, perhaps, to say a final goodbye). So, next morning, they start their hike into the range. “The trailhead was dry and the slope gentle and ticketed with yellow aspen leaves, and the vast fresh silence sounded in the sky,” writes Carlson, whose precise low-key prose is perfectly tuned to modulations in light, weather and landscape. “They’d spoken only a little the night before, primarily because he had made himself one of his stone-cold promises that he would keep it light and tight and not get riled up or ripped up. Every day since he had walked away from the jail had been a lesson in assembling himself, and he did not want to lose that.”
The structure of “The Signal” is shaped by days, by the rise and fall of the sun: six days in the mountains, six chapters in the book. In the early chapters, Mack and Vonnie walk with their backpacks, “she then he, slowly and steady up the path,” and head for lakes to fish while Carlson artfully layers in the back story of their romance and marriage. Mack’s a Westerner, born and bred, while she’s from back east, the headstrong daughter of a wealthy family who came for vacations on Mack’s father’s guest ranch; he knows horses and the land, and has been derailed by his father’s death; she knows music, and all about integrity, and is rock solid. He gives her a hard time about her snazzy new binoculars (although he’s happy for them by the end); she gives him hell about his lies and misbehavior. He’s “a hand” and she’s “a heart,” as they’ve told each other in the past.
Mack has another agenda, though, something he’s not telling Vonnie, a secret reason for this particular trek. Acting for a guy back in town, a shady character with connections to the CIA, Mack carries a BlackBerry tuned to a frequency that will pick up a signal from a small plane that has gone down, somewhere up there in the wild. If he finds the plane, he’ll get a big payoff, enough to save his ranch. It’s a deal, a sour bargain, and as readers we sense there’ll be repercussions. This section shimmers, therefore, with an apprehensive expectancy, the sense that unpleasantness will soon cease happening on the edges, or in memory, and march center stage.
Carlson paces his tale with craft and care, never hurrying. Threat impinges slowly at first, in the forms of trash found on a trail and a rifle shot in the distance. And when real danger and fear do crash in, their source is a surprise: “Across the dark space made by the mossy trunks was a gray tent. It all came into focus: the fire ring and the big tent, and two gutted elk hanging by the heels from a horizontal log nailed to two of the big trees.”
This horrible moment proves to be a hinge, and thereafter the action accelerates into a sprint of escape and pursuit whose tension and detailed final shootout recall the great rural thrillers of the English writer Geoffrey Household as much as James Dickey’s “Deliverance.” But Carlson is an American writer, of course, and the nature and narrative purpose of all this “bad business in the woods” feel close to the West. Some of the bad guys here are poachers and drug dealers whom Mack knows from his downward spiral, and one of Carlson’s themes is how the tacky tendrils of American modernity have reached out to touch, and mutate, even the remotest parts of the American wilderness. Carlson doesn’t moralize about this change, but he’s attentive to it. Sharkish lawyers and real estate developers and celebrities hang out in Wyoming; vice presidents chopper in for hunting trips; airliners scar the empty vastness of the sky.
“The Signal” is about broken innocence and how, for the individual at least, balance might be found again. Mack begins to restore himself through his wits, his field craft, his superior knowledge of a lovingly evoked terrain. “Here the shade was actually purple, and the aspens twisted upward through three seasons: green leaves at the bottom, yellow in the middle, and their top branches already bare.” Mack cooks well, too, and Carlson’s descriptions of campfire meals are so detailed we hear the sizzle and smell the pancakes.
In the end, “The Signal” mirrors the campfire yarns Mack likes to spin -- and offers hope. Carlson’s first novel was called “Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald” and there’s a nod in that direction here too, with a doctor named Diver, a reference, I’m guessing, to “Tender Is the Night.” Carlson’s a romantic -- even when he’s writing about failings, folly and violence. “The shot was a flat crack, as loud as anything a person gets to hear,” he writes, and this novel, though short, has a lingering elegance and power. In the final scene, when the ordeal is done, Mack and Vonnie talk about going for a meal, a spinach omelet “with rye toast and potatoes and maybe a little piece of steak. Something that uses the whole plate.” Mack’s already making better plans.
Lives go wrong, “The Signal” says, but they can be repaired too, if we find our centers and attend to what’s around us.