Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dude: Reflections on Ron Carlson's Five Skies

“In Chick Lit,” writes Laura Fraser, “women write about their emotions. In Dude Lit, men use rock ‘n’ roll songs as a stand-in for their feelings. The more complex the emotions, the more obscure the band.” 

I know, I know, I get sick of beating the gender drum too.  But Ron Carlson’s Five Skies has such a male quality to it that I can’t help but begin with gender.  And as you’ll see by the time I finish, it’s clear that he’s doing an interesting blend of “dude lit” and “chick lit” that ends up blurring labels the way all good books do.

Ron Carlson’s Five Skies does not follow the dude lit mold Fraser describes above.  Instead of using rock songs as emotional stand-ins, Carlson has created a book that recognizes how difficult it is for men to deal with emotions, even though the emotions are present and the men have a very real desire to deal with them.  The book operates on premise more than plot: three men work on a construction project in Idaho.  They do not previously know one another, but the two leads, Arthur Key and Darwin, are both freshly grieving personal tragedies.  The third man—who, at twenty, is just breaking into manhood—is troubled by his own ignominious history.  For me, the book was strongest 

in the scenes between Key and Darwin where their conversation edges towards expressing their grief, then tantalizingly backs away.  Sometimes the conversation would avoid emotions entirely on its surface but remain somehow deeply fraught.

Five Skies is the first novel I read in preparation for the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, where Carlson is on the faculty.  Why Five Skies?  I’ve been meaning to read it for some years now because I liked how different the premise and the setting are from the books I typically read, while the meat of the book isn’t a far cry from the domestic fiction I tend to favor. I wasn’t disappointed in this respect.  The book captures the everyday interactions of these men and the real feelings behind them, even as it details welding, planting poles, and other activities far outside the drawing room sphere (and when I say drawing room here, I mean parlor and nothing related to construction blueprints).  In short, the flavor of the lifestyle and the vast western landscape remains unmistakably male while the conflict and drama of the book is along the lines of what we would consider “female” or “domestic”—small interactions and what they mean.

I can’t blog about Five Skies without calling attention to one other remarkable feature: the pacing of the book.  As we all know, our society loves instant gratification, and to the novelist’s chagrin, this love has ramifications for fiction—an expectation that the novel will move in a way that “hooks” the reader, that keeps the ever-dwindling attention span satisfied.  Five Skies refuses to do any such thing.  It demands its own pace from the nature-filled description of what it’s like for Arthur Key to wake up in chapter 1 to his very deliberate movements in the final chapter (I won’t give it away).  I’ll be honest: it is a slow pace, and if you’re a reader for whom slow pace is a deal breaker, Five Skies probably isn’t for you.  To my mind, slow pace is not necessarily a bad thing and can, in fact, be a great thing, a wonderful antidote to our 10 Mbps world.  Slow pacing is painful when it is born of bogged down, pointless description or a bunch of information about characters that lacks particular insight.  But when a slow pace is part of the intentional flavor of a book and sets the kind of contemplative stage necessary for—oh, say—characters slowly healing from grief, it becomes part of the novel’s art.  It’s just too bad for those of us writers who don’t yet have name recognition that we often can’t get away with it.  Kudos to Carlson for cashing in on his hard-earned reputation.

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