Monday, July 7, 2008

Ron Carlson

I've decided to start highlighting my favorite authors, beginning with Ron Carlson.

A Creative Writing professor at UC Irvine, Carlson belies the old saying that those who can't do, teach. (Though his one book about writing, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, made me want to sign up for every class he teaches, if he's half as brilliant, funny and wise as the written version of himself).

The first Carlson novel I read was The Speed of Light (2003). Marketed as a YA book because the protagonist is 12, the book's delightful detached irony will appeal to adults more than teens, as the narrator recounts his summer on the verge of adolescence. The adventures of Larry, Witt and Rafferty are funny and endearing, and his childlike analysis of the world he's not quite ready to enter is spot on. The writing is at times achingly beautiful. And, like most YA books, it's a relatively quick read, which is always a good way to test out a new author.

Carlson's most recent novel is Five Skies (2007), the story of three very different men working on building a motorcycle jump in the middle-of-nowhere Idaho desert. Carlson effortlessly moves between three points of view as the reader experiences these mens' private pain intermingling with increased connections to each other. It's a very subtle novel, not one to breeze through quickly or you'll miss the pockets of humor. Much of the dialogue reminded me of a play--the lines bloom when read aloud, the subtle meanings behind words could easily be glossed over by an inattentive reader.

In fact, it's almost too subtle at times, losing opportunities to keep the reader in suspense. In one scene a character is injured, but instead of starting with the moment of injury, Carlson chose to start with the men in the car on the way to the clinic in town, then to go back and tell how the injury happened. Well, you knew the guy was OK because of the tone of the text as they drove along. In the climax, I again found myself spending more energy figuring out what had happened than reacting to it.

I have yet to read Carlson's other two novels, Truants (1981) and Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1977).

His short stories, however, are magnificent. Short story collections, no matter how well-written, are harder for me to dive into than novels. Reading A Kind of Flying underlined why: in many short stories, by the time I figure out who the character truly is and what their motivation is, I've reached the climax of the story and it's a few more pages and on to the next one. Not true with Carlson.
Almost every one of these stories feels like the guy next door (even when the guy next door happens to be Bigfoot, or in a couple of cases the guy next door's wife) started a conversation with you over the side fence. By the end of the first paragraph you know these folks, and you know their story will take you somewhere you'll remember. From the baseball player who can't lose (Sunny Billy Day) to the man traveling to Alaska in search of a connection with the son he lost years before he died (Blazo); from men aching to become fathers (Life Before Science) or trying to re-establish relations with their wives amid young parenthood (Plan B for the Middle Class), to women struggling with the process of letting go of their teenaged sons (The Status Quo, The Summer of Vintage Clothing)--Carlson brings these characters to life and lets us ride along with them for a while. It's well worth the trip.

A Kind of Flying contains stories pulled from Carlson's previously published three collections, Plan B for the Middle Class (1992), The Hotel Eden (1997), and At the Jim Bridger (2002), which I've been reading sporadically. I'm hoping that if I go through them slowly enough, by the time I finish every story Carlson will have his next novel ready for me to review.


  1. One of my male readers suggested Five Skies to me when it came out and I loved it. Glad you posted about this writer.

  2. Sounds like some good variety in A Kind of Flying!