The major characters in Five Skies are men at work and men on the run. It's not surprising that they are men of few words as well. Art Key, a 40-something Hollywood stunt engineer fleeing a guilty conscience, and Ronnie Panelli, a 19-year-old petty thief dodging the law, join aging ranch hand Darwin Gallegos for a summer-long construction project on the Idaho high plateau, where shop talk stands in for soul searching.
Though it takes author Ron Carlson some time to move beyond these well-worn types, and the construction jargon further slows the reader, gradually the stoic narration guides us deep into his characters' inner lives.
Perhaps without the gradual beginning, the understated drama of this quiet and often poetic book would disappear beneath the memories from which each man flees. Their heavy losses in the past far outweigh the things the men carry in their pickup truck. Ostensibly, they are here to construct a motorcycle jump across a gaping ravine for a television stunt. In actuality, they simply want to be anywhere other than where they were. Tiny dots on a punishing landscape, Ronnie, Art and Darwin heal and thrive in this least welcoming of environments.
As the characters become familiar, so too does their language. The technical lexicon settles naturally into the story's drama, as in this close call with a road grader: "It was a spectacular sight, the pale elongated machine run off the edge of the escarpment, rocking there in weird balance, its front tires hanging into the ravine, the rear tires, motorbox, drivercab, and Ronnie Panelli tilted up, buoying almost a foot off the ground." The machine's driver becomes just another automotive part, teetering hundreds of feet above an indifferent river; he's almost an afterthought, which only intensifies the emotional impact.
But Five Skies is weakened by its thin supporting cast. Ronnie's love interest, Traci, and her stalwart mother, not to mention two sets of disgruntled townies, seem more like plot contrivances than fully realized characters. At one point, the three protagonists watch their camp being vandalized from across the ravine. The vandals read like flat caricatures of ignorant hicks, and Ronnie, Art and Darwin neither react to the attack nor reflect on it.
Carlson's unquestioned talent as a short-story writer emerges most clearly when he examines the past. He uses his characters' memories to construct a foundation on which they will try to rebuild their broken lives. Witness Ronnie, the former juvenile delinquent, boldly confronting another group of vandals while out with Traci: "No matter what was about to happen here, it would continue through the aeons," Carlson writes. "He'd never thought this way before, and it made him uneasy. He was becoming someone else. He laid the rifle in the dirt and stepped toward the men." Growth this pure is rare, and connection in a world this stark and uninviting is hard-won.
256 pages, hardcover: $23.95.