After twenty-five years of mostly focusing on mastering the short-story genre (with the exception of his extraordinary 2003 young adult novel, The Speed of Light), Ron Carlson has returned to the novel form in Five Skies, a beautifully written, simply plotted novel about three men from three different backgrounds who have one thing in common: They are all emotionally wounded and in pain. They are brought together at a construction site far from town where they have nothing to do but work and no company to keep save that of each other. All the men are at the end of their collective ropes, and each of them is seeking to avoid both what he has left behind and whatever lies in wait in the future.
The novel begins with the three awakening at their building site (and home, since they actually camp at the site for the duration of the job). The reader meets each of the three protagonists: Darwin Gallegos, the former foreman of the nearby Rio Difficulto ranch, is in charge of the job at the bequest of his former employer. In his mid-sixties, Darwin is the eldest of the three. Arthur Key is a large, strong man moving toward middle age, a successful engineer for Hollywood stunts requiring elaborate sets. The third and youngest is nineteen-year-old Ronnie Panelli, a runaway and former petty thief and juvenile detention inmate. In straightforward prose and careful, sparse, beautifully drawn descriptions, Carlson slowly paints in the portraits of these three, structuring the novel so that little about them is revealed outright. Each of the men is, in various ways, a mystery. In a sense, their lack of willingness to reveal themselves to each otherand to the readeris indicative of the truth that all three are in flight from the realities of their lives.
The construction and work site shared by the three men is on the edge of a huge canyon in southern Idaho. Just as Carlson initially avoids explaining the particular emotional chains being dragged behind the men, he also delays explaining what the construction site is. When Arthur Key first examines the plans, he is irritated by them, having wished for a more important project. “I was really hoping this would be a bridge,” he tells Darwin. “That would have been more than I could chew, but I was hoping.”
The reader eventually realizes that the project is for a gigantic motorcycle ramp and spectator bleachers. A reality show plans to have one of television wrestling’s star women jump a motorcycle over the canyon and land on the other side. Despite the work and care that the men put into the construction of the ramp, it is a doomed project. When Ronnie expresses optimism that the woman might leap the gap because of her small size, Arthur tells him, “Her bones are small, but she’ll break them all.”
It takes the three men from May through the summer to build first their campsite, and then the bleachers, the road to the ramp, a fence along the canyon’s lip, and the ramp itself. Even as they work with tools and their hands to construct the site, they are, at the same time, rebuilding themselves and attempting to salvage their lives from whatever ruin has befallen them. All three prolong their pain with their isolation, and, although they are not building the bridge that Arthur Key hoped for, they are in a sense building bridges to each other. The novel makes much of tools, of the value of hard work, and of how the pride in a job well done can sustain a man.
Slowly their stories emerge. Darwin is a recent widower who has lost his wife after a freak accident and who is unable to forgive God and the universe for robbing him of his spouse after forty years of marriage. He is unable to return to the ranch where he has spent his entire adult life; the pain is too much for him. Arthur has lost someone, tooa younger, less responsible, less cautious brother. As readers are told in small flashbacks throughout the narrative, Arthur had become very successful in Hollywood as a construction engineer. Careful, responsible, and reliable, he could build elaborate sets constructed to give life to sensational stunt sequences. Arthur...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)