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Review of The Signal

The Signal
By Ron Carlson
Viking, 2009

What I liked most about The Signal, Ron Carlson’s svelte and powerful new novel, is the way the Wind River Mountains are given the dimensions, even the breath, of a living presence. If you’ve traveled in high elevations you’ve felt how the thin air and capricious weather hone your senses and lend an enhanced feeling of peril and elation to ordinary doings. Carlson describes, in one of many instances, how the mountains impose upon his main characters Mack and Vonnie:

The shadows had thickened even as they stood and talked. The angle of light grew fragile; it made him want to hurry. It had always called to him, and now it hurt. You always felt time as a tangible heartbeat in the mountains. The days were short.

Mack and Vonnie are camping together in a last sad hurrah after a decade of marriage that ended when Mack, desperate for money to keep his family ranch, became a meth runner and eventually a convicted criminal. Now, out of prison, he gets a final trip with Vonnie before she returns to her new husband, a weekend he scurrilously (and self-loathingly) complicates in trying to locate an illegally manufactured war plane that has crashed somewhere in the mountains.

But all this makes the plot of The Signal sound more involved than it actually is. The weapons contraband, as well as a violent run-in with Mack’s former partners in meth-trafficking, are primarily catalysts of change in the real soul of The Signal, the relationships between Mack and Vonnie and between the two and the Wyoming mountains.

Carlson is wonderfully alive to the parallels of those two bonds. Just as Mack knows he will never be so intimate with Vonnie again, he also knows that his age, his insolvency, and commercial development are conspiring to spoil the purity of the wilderness. There is a sore beauty in a simple afternoon of fishing that is connected to the knowledge that such an activity may never happen again:

Mack saw something and it was the fish’s shadow in the water and then the trout near the surface. “He’s too close.” Vonnie snugged the line and the fish responded, leaping and in that second seeing the world, the two people in the white snow, it twisted with every ounce of itself, and the fish swam away, the fine broken leader trailing from its mouth. They could see him race down, diving through the bladed sunlight of the lake water, and then stall and settle again as if nothing had happened.

Vonnie looked at Mack, her face blank and then she saw the old smile emerge.

“Fish,” she said.

They were at the wild rough top of the world.

Not everything in The Signal feels adequately wrapped-up by the conclusion – the subplot with the title’s homing signal seems especially unresolved. But in gorgeous flowing prose (Carlson has mastered the seamless run-on sentence, all chain-linked with ‘ands’) we get a poignant excavation of a broken marriage and the possibilities of rehabilitation. The persistent feelings of love and loss are sharpened by the mountain air, and Carlson endows each with a sense of wonder:

Mack had looked at [his father], sleeves rolled, lifting a cast out onto the blue-brown mystery of the lake surface, and that line marked the known world from the unknown, and Mack wondered how he understood the depth of this little bay, how he knew where the fish were, how he knew everything he knew. The wondering seemed to hurt Mack’s heart which he understood simply as love, the aching desire to measure up, to master the mathematics.

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