Carlson’s previous book, 2007’s Five Skies, was far & away the finest novel I read during that calendar year – a year filled with the likes of Denis Johnson, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, and Michael Ondaatje, so nothing to sneeze at. What struck me most about Five Skies was Carlson’s ability to create a place where the only ceiling is the darkening sky and where there are no physical walls to be found anywhere. The Signal, while it does lose a bit of its narrative path towards its conclusion, shares that same expanse of space, brushing through the pines and casting flies into the clear lakes of Wyoming. Carlson has the unique ability to create that sense of quietude and stillness that comes from walking the wilds of the world.
The premise is rather simple – Mack and Vonnie have seemingly reached the end of their ten-year marriage. Mack has made some terrible decisions in that decade – abandoning his life and livelihood on his family ranch for supposedly greener pastures laden with drink, drugs, and cash – essentially forcing Vonnie’s hand, despite her love for Mack. As a final farewell of sorts, Vonnie agrees to accompany Mack on their annual September hike into Cold Creek, one last time. She sees this as a way of closing off their relationship and mending broken hearts, while Mack sees an opportunity to prove to Vonnie (and himself) that he is still the man he once was, despite his mistakes. Of course, he has one last mistake to make before their time in the mountains is over – one set in motion by the actions in his life without Vonnie that may destroy all that he cares about in the end.
“Valentine Lake was a twenty-acre heart of silver, blue rimmed to the edge by pines and red sandstone. They came over the low ridge and saw it set out as if invented this morning.”
Mack and Vonnie’s relationship is complex enough to carry the underlying love story plotline – Carlson has a deft hand when it comes to the human heart, I have no doubt – but he falters a bit when the third act action crescendos and stumbles towards a conclusion. Things end up being a bit like a cross between the gunfight at the OK corral and a white trash bar fight, but maybe I see it that way because Carlson’s true talent is so evident throughout the rest of the book. The visuals are so clear, vivid, and eloquent – the mud on the trail, the smell of waning campfire, the sun glinting off the ancient lakes, the whisper of the breeze through the pines – that it reads like a John Muir nature narrative or, as Carlson says, “a love letter to camping”, however modestly dull that may seem. I have never read an author who so expertly draws you into the world he creates. I imagined Carlson writing this narrative actually out in the woods of the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming – how else would he have been able to capture that essence? (He denies this, actually, so I don’t know how he does it.) Mack’s impeccable knowledge of this wilderness is comforting, especially in light of his bumbling experiences in the world at large. One of Carlson’s reoccurring themes is of the encroachment of the “civilized” world on the old, green spaces of the land – this encroachment is never more evident than in the embodiment of Mack. He cannot survive in the cities and towns of the world, making error after error, ruining his own life and those of whom he cares for most. But once he is set out into the mountains and forests, he has no match and truly comes alive. This hiking trip is more an opportunity for Mack to live again after having death hover above him for the better part of the previous year. Watching his transformation from greedy, stupid fool in town to peerless naturalist and woodsman in the mountains is truly the great strength of this novel.
“He walked back and opened the tailgate and sat, finally lifting his eyes to look east across the tiers of Wyoming spread beneath him in the vast echelons of brown and gray. It was dark here against the forest, but light gathered across the planet, and he could see the golden horizon at a hundred and fifty miles.”
After reflecting a bit, I realize that my issue with the third act of The Signal actually has nothing to do with the writing or the plotting – it’s entirely on my end. The conclusion is taut, suspenseful, and perfectly paced, I just resent the fact that such an ending was necessary to begin with. The leisurely pace of treking through the mountains which Carlson sets out with becomes so comfortable that I was jarred awake by the rockslide of events on Mack & Vonnie’s fifth day out. I was so content to linger near the icy glacial lakes, sniffing the pine trees and fishing for trout, that I failed to fully notice the outside world’s encroachment. Civilization slowly creeps from the edges of Mack’s memories to being fully formed and roaring above the treeline, destroying the tranquility of the wilderness. I resent that. I resent Mack for making such idiotic decisions prior to their trip that lead to the disruption of that perfect, wild splendor. Again, this is a Carlson theme – the human world at large has an uncanny ability to intrude on the natural world, whether there are those of us who like it or not. So in that sense, the third act, in all its human action and greed-fueled violence, fits perfectly into that thematic view of the world. I just took it personally, which is a testament to Ron Carlson’s abilities as a remarkable writer.