9. The Signal by Ron Carlson
“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.”
I make no secret about my love for the writings of Mr. Ron Carlson – I’ve written about this book (which I’ve read twice) and his previous, Five Skies (a 2007 Catapult Notable Book), more times than I can count. I was lucky enough to meet him in June of this year – you can see the six-part video of his talk at Warwick’s on our Youtube page – and humbled by his, well, humility. You can read my full length review of The Signal right here, because I’m going to phone it in a bit and just excerpt that review down here:
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 in the mountains of Wyoming, 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.
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. 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. If anything, just read this to leave your city life behind for a few days.