In The Signal, just as in Carlson's short stories, a lifetime of emotion is distilled into one event. This time the event is a six-day camping trip in the mountains--a final goodbye for Mack and his ex-wife, Vonnie.
Broken hearted by the death of his father, Mack blew it, big time. Amid the resulting drinking and drug-running, and the threatened loss of his beloved ranch, Vonnie left him. Several months in jail gave him time to dry out and think things over, but not to make a plan. He can just about manage one last annual fishing trip with Vonnie, and despite the fact that she's with another man now, she agrees to go. Big stuff happens on the fishing trip and it doesn't turn out how either of them planned, and that's the story. Six days.
Here's Mack waiting for Vonnie at the beginning of the trip, still unsure of whether she'll show up:
Mack was not scared. He had been uneasy and worried and scared and empty and sort of ruined, and he knew this, but now he had his ways of doing one thing and then the next and it kept the ruin off him. If she left Jackson by four, she'd be along in a while. If she hadn't left Jackson; well then.An abundance of flashbacks fills in the details of Mack and Vonnie's courtship and how things went wrong. Flashbacks can be tricky business, more distracting than enlightening, but when they work well--as they do here--the result is magic. By the end of Day One while Mack waits for Vonnie to arrive--thirty pages--the reader has tasted enough of his history to be glad to see Vonnie, and to truly understand why his father's death so thoroughly devastated him.
His father's death changed it all. At the ranch everything was tilted, weird; it was more than something missing. Gravity had changed. Mack saw to the horses and painted the small barn, but there was no center for him without his father there.The setting--the mountains of Wyoming--is as critical to the story as any of the characters are, and the plot becomes riveting at the halfway point. Luckily it's a short book; by the time you can't put it down, you might as well go ahead and finish it.
Some people like ratings; I don't. But if it'll make you read this one, I'll give it five (out of five) glorious pints of Babcock Hall butter pecan ice cream.
The Soundtrack: It's gotta be My Rambling Boy, which Vonnie makes Mack sing so he can't hear her peeing in the woods. Can't find it on Playlist.com but you can click on the song title to hear it at Last.fm.