As they endeavor upon this simple, grand project, the three reveal themselves in cautiously resonant, profound ways. And in a voice of striking intimacy and grace, Carlson's novel reveals itself as a story of biblical, almost spiritual force. A bellwether return from one of our greatest craftsmen, Five Skies is sure to be one of the most praised and cherished novels of the year.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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The first time Arthur Key saw the plateau at the far edge of the ranch called Rio Difficulto, he was lying in a sleeping bag in the frigid open air at dawn, or a little before it, in the deep gray light through which so many creatures jostled in the sage. He was a big man and had slept in rough sections, shouldering the oversize Coleman sleeping bag up over his right arm and then his left by turns. A screaming rabbit had woken him, the cries thin and shrill in their extremity sounding only like a woman to him, only like a crime. They beat into the fading darkness like a two-note whistle, then suddenly stopped, and Arthur Key lifted his head and scanned the area. At first he didn't know where he was, which rooming house, but he knew the low black line of the crenellated mountain horizon was a hundred miles distant. The large Ford flatbed—still loaded—was parked off in the sage, cocked unevenly because of their having let so much air out of the tires the night before. Beside it he could see a small open army surplus jeep with a winch on the front bumper, and behind that a pile of material, a stack of large lumber in stays, the small tractor, a blue portable john still in its rough wooden crate, the frost on everything silver in the new light. There was nothing else, no building, no tent, no small trailer across the work yard. He closed his eyes and smiled. Darwin had said room and board.
Arthur Key put his hand on his head and felt the frost in his hair. In the new silence, he could now hear another sound which at first he assumed to be some pressure in his head. Then as he yawned and cleared his ears he guessed it was the flat high harmonics of an intercontinental flight, San Francisco to Boston, but as the vibration persisted he sat up and listened again. There were fluctuations in it like those in human speech, and a rhythm as if a generator were running somewhere a half-mile away. He wanted it to be a generator, the gas-driven generator that would be running the galley trailer where coffee would be ready, hot coffee and absolutely anything else.
In the past six weeks, mornings had been kindest to him. He had saved himself for two things: waking and having some coffee, and then, of course, the day caught up with him and he put his head down and worked, whatever it was. He'd just finished two weeks in Pocatello working cement on the foundations for new storage units. He told himself he was trying to regroup, to get a grip, but he now knew, after this time away from the life he had ruined, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.
The sound wasn't a generator and it wasn't people talking. When he stood, he knew it was at some distance a river, and as he walked toward it and saw clearly the mortifying fissure through which such a vast river ran, the geology of the entire plateau settled in his mind as an entity, a huge primitive place that few men had seen. He went to the edge of the sandstone gorge and looked down. In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders. Here the sound was terrific, magnified, real. It sucked the air away and drew you toward it. Key measured up the river, estimating the vertical canyon at fifteen hundred feet. He couldn't sense the width. Below him as his dizziness abated he saw a shadow sweep and then an osprey rose into his face, a small cutthroat trout in one talon. Across the chasm the first sunlight clipped the western echelon of ruined mountains and cones of the badland volcanoes at the edge of the world, and they were gray and red and gold in the moment. Two low spires of smoke smudged the sky far away; it would be early in the year for such fires.
Key heard a sharp painful sigh and turned to see a figure moving on the ranch road, a thin man whose shadow in the new sun cut a hundred yards toward the canyon. It was the kid, Ronnie. He was walking away in the barren place and then Arthur Key saw the man begin to run in the cold, a stride purposeful and beautiful at once. Key folded his arms and watched until the shadow streamed slowly south and disappeared.
Darwin, still in his sleeping bag, had watched the young man move to the gate and run away. He'd already seen the big man, Arthur, move to the canyon edge. The sun was up now, but it was not warmer, and the frost filled every shadow and coated the glass of the two vehicles. He crawled out of his sleeping bag and laced up his boots and put on his jacket. He was unfolding the metal stove table and opening the stove when the big man, Arthur Key, came back from his tour.
"Where'd Ronnie go?"
Darwin was a little sick now that he realized he'd made a mistake by hiring these two. He'd been desperate—it had been late in the day and the country was full of men who couldn't work, wouldn't work, and they were hard to get rid of. Just driving back to Pocatello would cost him more than a day. He'd been tired and he was fooled by the big man's size, he knew now. Darwin lit the propane and set the coffeepot on the burner while he pulled the heavy cast-iron frying pan from the cookbox. In forty years at the ranch he'd hired maybe six bad apples, and now for the first time on his own he'd started with an error.
Excerpted from "Five Skies"
Copyright © 2008 Ron Carlson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Reading Group Guide
In his first novel in twenty-five years, Ron Carlson tells the story of three men—each locked in his own isolation, each trying to escape a painful past—who come together for a strange job: to build a stunt ramp in the “ruined mountains” seventeen miles south of Mercy, Idaho. On the surface, it is a simple story, marked by the formal tightness and emotional subtlety that have long characterized Carlson’s fiction. But the novel’s depths reach to the very heart of human suffering, ultimately revealing the healing power of work done well and the redemption that can be found in telling one’s story. In prose that is lyrical, precise, and deeply attuned to the fluctuations of the human spirit, Five Skies offers readers an extended meditation on the relationship between past and present, grief and the unburdening of grief, self-concealment and self-revelation.
When hiring Art Key and Ronnie Panelli, Darwin Gallegos senses that things are “all wrong.” He can tell from Ronnie’s jittery gaze that he’s been in jail and senses that Key has been damaged in some deep, essential way. But Darwin’s in a hurry and hires them anyway. On the drive up to the job site, they spin off a snow-covered mountain road, and this accident, which could easily have been disastrous, sets the tone of impending tragedy that haunts the novel. The site, Darwin notes, is a “nice place,” prompting Key to respond, “beautiful. . . . We’ll fix that,” for the ramp—and the motorcycle jump across the gorge for which the ramp is being built—makes clear the sacrifice of the beauty and wildness of the American West to greed and spectacle and high-risk recklessness. In fact, Key is appalled by the job because of what it is and because of the memories it evokes of a tragedy in his own past, but he decides he would “just do it as a job, not get involved in anything else.”
But not getting involved proves to be impossible as Key is drawn into the lives of Darwin and Ronnie—and brought closer to his own grief and guilt. Ronnie is running from the law, from a painful family life, and from his past as a petty shoplifter and unsuccessful thief. Darwin is haunted by the sudden and inconsolable death of his wife several years before. Each of them has been set adrift by a pain they are trying to escape. But in the shared pride of doing a job right, even if it is a bad job, they establish a kind of stoic intimacy and gradually reveal themselves to each other, a fact that in the end allows a kind of redemption—and makes its terribly high cost painfully clear.
ABOUT RON CARLSON
Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of four story collections, including At the Jim Bridger and The Hotel Eden, two novels, and a young adult novel. His stories appear regularly in Harper’s, The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Playboy, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the director of the graduate fiction program at the University of California, Irvine.
A CONVERSATION WITH RON CARLSON
Q. This is your first novel in twenty-five years. Why did you wait so long?
A. I wasn’t waiting really. I’ve been writing stories steadily and they ranged widely, serious to comic, and then some years ago I imagined a scene on a high desert river gorge with two men talking about work, the things they had made that had lasted, and I saw that to treat them, I would need a larger form. I would need to tell of an entire summer and that would require a novel.
Q. What challenges does the novel form present for you?
A. The opportunities in a novel are so different from those in a story. The world is larger and requires patience in every way. The writing isn’t full of sudden surprises, but discoveries that evolve credibly over time. The changes accrue steadily and you have to live in them as the wear and the tear and the real lessons gather. It is such a different pleasure from those in writing the sharp surprises that appear in many stories. The light doesn’t flash or surprise you but it breaks evenly and surely. I loved being in the world with these men for that longer season.
Q. Characters like Key, Darwin, and Ronnie are becoming increasingly rare in American fiction. What draws you to write about such men?
A. I wanted these to be simple men, each hauling his life forward as well as he could. They have been reduced by their histories, and they are weary or incapable of subterfuge. Sometimes, all you’ve got is the day, and I tried to use the days of their time together to test them, to see how they might emerge.
Q. What interests you about the kind of work you describe in the novel? Do you see parallels between the pride and care someone like Arthur Key takes in his work and your own work as a writer?
A. I’m not sure. I worked as carefully on this book as on any project I’ve had in my hands, and I measured twice before cutting once. (But I did cut more than once.) I like Arthur Key, his care, his understanding of materials and design, and his hesitance to be rash or hurried.
Q. Have you done the kind of work you describe so precisely in the novel? Did you do much research for Five Skies?
A. My father was a very fine craftsman and engineer, and I saw him every day admire the problems before him and approach them with the best design and the proper tools. We talked all the time about these things and he told me about the famous accidents in building design, bridges and hotel balconies. His drawings were beautiful. He gave me the equation about a motorcycle’s trajectory over a river gorge in a wonderful sketch. I still have it. My two brothers and I are fairly handy, though they are better at such things than I.
Q. Why is talking—telling one’s story—so important in Five Skies, for all the main characters, but especially for Arthur Key?
A. It is hard to talk, to build a sure story, something true that actually helps the current moment. We have things welded into our hearts that seem they will never open, and Arthur Key knows that he needs to tell his story; it is the only method forward. And he knows he will need new muscles to approach this important task.
Q. Art Key and Darwin Gallegos are pretty evocative names. How—and why—did you choose them?
A. I started with them and there was no other choice. I did know a fine man named Darwin a long time ago. I consider them real names. I was not trying for anything symbolic, any more than all of our names are.
Q. Will you return to writing stories now or are you at work on another novel? What’s next for you?
A. I am finishing another novel right now. It has my attention in the way I’d hoped. Since finishing Five Skies I have written a number of stories and I’m sure there are more ahead, but the long form has sort of swept me away, and I’m happily taken.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Three men, each with something he is trying to run away from, come together through circumstances to work on a project to build a jump ramp for an Evel Knievel style leap over a remote canyon in Idaho. Darwin Gallegos, the local man who will lead them is the eldest, the two men he employs are Arthur Key and the much younger Ronnie Panelli, not yet twenty years old.Arthur, a big muscular man, has left Los Angeles, a tragedy and a betrayal; Ronnie, slim or skinny, is running away from a life of petty crime; and Darwin has his own misery to deal with. As they work together they gradually reveal their secrets and begin to grow out of the of the things they would rather leave behind. Arthur is a gentle giant who good naturedly teases Ronnie while he also teaches the willing boy about carpentry and safety. Ronnie takes everything in and works with the zeal of the newly initiated. The three men inevitably draw close to each other over the duration of the project, and as the end draws near two maybe will have found their way back, but for the third the outcome will prove otherwise.This is touching story of three good but very different men. We also get a very good sense of the wild and remote open terrain of the Idaho mesa. An engaging story with three equally engaging men, Five Skies is very well written, moving but never sentimental, a worthwhile read.
Ron Carlson assembles three men in "Five Skies," each at a different, trying stage of his inner and overt journey. They all have an angry, or guilty, place they are running from, and assemble on a high cliff in Idaho to build something right.Arthur Key is a huge man, muscled, experienced, intelligent, and kindly. He is also skittish and haunted by something that happened at home in California. Darwin Gallegos is the onetime manager on the ranch where they work; his wife was recently killed when the light plane she was flying in with the owner crashed. He is angry with his former boss, and with God. Ronnie Panelli, the junior partner on the project, learns things about himself in leaps and bounds, and begins to understand that he's growing out of being a petty thief.The comeraderie of the three is a rare treat. I read this immediately after Janet Fitch's "Paint it Black," and it works pretty well as the male version companion-piece. Here, the talk is all in the halting, laconic code that men use when they're unwilling to share their deepest feelings. The easy-going ribbing they give each other, in lieu of honest, heartfelt talk, is itself clever and delightful. Laurel wreaths to Carlson for these touches. They're wonderful.Carlson's milieu of naked land, the uncluttered vistas of southeastern Idaho, affords him a place that is itself metaphor. The men are at an ending and a new starting; their lives have nothing but space in which to build. Their project, constructing a massive ramp for an insane motorcycle stunt, carries symbolic weight, too, as they each consider a heroic leap from their past lives."Five Skies" is brief, clean, heartfelt, and effective. This is an elegant fiction, and it will transport you the way a good book should. I recommend it very highly.
Men at WorkThree men stand at the edge of a remote river gorge in Idaho, about to begin work on a summer construction project: a large wooden ramp at the lip of the canyon, built for a motorcycle stuntwoman who plans to jump the canyon, a la Evel Knievel. The three men are relative strangers to each other, but before the summer is over, they will bond in ways none of them could have predicted.That's the sum total of Ron Carlson's first novel in thirty years, Five Skies. It's a beautiful, patiently-moving narrative about the value of hard work and the way flawed men come to grips with their personal demons. Each of these three men are running from something: the gigantic man-of-few-words Arthur Key, who used to build collapsible sets for movies and who can't shake feelings of guilt over a recent death; Darwin Gallegos, the former ranch-hand at Rio Difficulto, where the men are building the ramp, and who won't let go of the stabbing pain of his wife's death in a plane crash five months earlier; and Ronnie Panelli, a nineteen-year-old petty thief who is trying to mend the error of his ways.The men are each, in their own stoic way, trying to heal themselves by plunging into a summer of hard labor. Arthur, for instances, reveals this to us early in the novel: He told himself he was trying to regroup, to get a grip, but he now knew, after this time away from the life he had ruined, he wasn't doing a very good job of it. The bulk of the novel demonstrates how three tough but sensitive men go about untying the knots that bind them to past sorrows and mistakes.Amid the hairy navel-gazing, the methodical work of engineering goes on unabated. Save for a few trips into the nearby town of (aptly-named) Mercy, the action is confined to the job site on the wind-swept plateau. Even here, Carlson finds poetry in the muscular world of construction, filling Five Skies with precise details of the labor and materials involved in building a structure that will, in essence, be a one-shot wonder. Here, for instance, is one paragraph planted early in the book when Arthur goes shopping at the local hardware store:He had a list in his pocket and he began assembling the items: wooden stakes; heavy twine; steel hinges; two hundred yards of the rope; a one-inch tempered steel drill bit; forty-yard-long dowels, diameter one inch; a basket of steel fittings; boxes of wood screws; bags of brads; a roof stapler and staples; five gallons of wood sealer; five gallons of white enamel; spray enamel, white, black red; coarse-bristle paintbrushes; four paint rollers with extension handles; ten bags of posthole mix; five gallons of creosote; and a shopping cart of miscellaneous small tools, including chisels, a rasp and a fine Stanley wood plane.The novel is a literary blueprint of work, the diary of one summer of sweat and sore muscles. The men carefully clear brush from the site, dig post-holes, hammer sheets of lumber together and smooth asphalt for the runway. They are proud of their work, but are always reminded that it's just a job and that soon the summer will end and they will drift away from the site and, most likely, from each other. There is one particularly telling scene when they travel to the other side of the canyon and look back on the half-built ramp:Key was sobered by the panorama, and the vastness smothered his notions that the project might succeed. It was one thing, and a good thing, to secure a rail or build a step, but under the pressing sky and against this thousand-mile wind, and across the red and violet vacuum of the rocky chasm, every nail they'd pounded seemed a waste of time. The three men stood in the soft sand near the lip of rock in their sunglasses and looked across at this little jobsite.The physical labor may take center stage, but it's the personal growth of each character we're most interested in. Carlson unfolds those revelations little by little, not playing his whole ha
Five Skies by Ron Carlson is a subtle and complex journey through the emotional landscape of three decent men trying to reconstruct their lives in the wake of personal turmoil and pain. It shows in great detail how men deal with emotional pain¿how men intuitively know how to reach out with studied casualness and enormous subtlety to provide emotional support to other men in times of need. The plot is simple. The owner of the Rio Difficulto ranch has agreed to lease a small portion of land located adjacent to 1,500-feet-deep river gorge to a group of entertainment investors who plan to produce a Memorial Day stunt jump across the gorge by a daredevil, Evel-Knievel-type woman on a motorcycle. To create the stunt, the investors first need to ready the site. Three workmen are found to build the launch ramp, a road, bleachers, and a temporary chain-link fence to protect the on-site spectators from any fatal missteps at the edge of the gorge. The men who accept the job are Arthur Keys, Darwin Gallegos, and Ronnie Panelli. They will live and work onsite, surrounded by nothing but the primordial plains of southern Idaho. They will be working in the wilderness, without a sign of civilization in all directions. Mercy, the nearest town, is 20 miles away. Each man is attracted to the project because it offers the isolation they require to heal their emotional wounds. We know these men are scarred by life, but we don¿t know why. The facts about each man¿s past are slowly revealed over the course of the novel.In this novel, we read a lot about the day-in-and-day-out details of the work site projects, together with the everyday details of how these men live together in their makeshift camp. In their isolation, sleeping in a tent and cooking outside under the 360-degree vastness of open prairie skies, they carve out a sheltering family existence. The book is infused with a deep love for the natural environment, especially the rugged western high plains plateaus. How the men interact with the natural environment plays a central role. I¿ve always been aware that men and women heal their emotional pain in completely different ways. Women seem to confront their emotional pain head on, typically relying on close women friends to help them understand and deal with their pain. On the other hand, men like to steal away to lick their wounds in private, or bury their pain in an avalanche of hard work. Rarely do men directly seek emotional support from anyone, particularly not from any of their male friends. Yet somehow, almost incomprehensibly, in acutely subtle ways, men do receive the support they need from their male comrades. Five Skies captures this process¿the process of how men reach out, with extreme subtly, to help and heal their emotionally wounded colleagues. This is a book that must be read carefully and slowly. If you are an astute reader, you¿ll recognize a lot of psychological healing going on between these hardened workmen, but it often appears so quickly and is gone again in a flash, that it can easily be missed¿a gesture here, a few innocent but tender words there, a helping hand, a kind word of praise¿all buried within the everyday tasks of living and working together. What a treasure it is to find a book that captures this process with such crystalline clarity! Ron Carlson¿s prose is richly layered and literary. Sometimes, it takes on the rhythm and tenor of Annie-Dillard-like poetry masquerading as prose. This style stands in stark contrast to the everyday masculine simplicity of the events related through these words, but complements the emotional depth being captured. Together they work a magic synergy that gives the whole that much more impact. This is a carefully crafted work of literature, and I sincerely hope it wins a major literary prize so that a wider audience can learn about it and enjoy it. Five Skies has all the markings of a fine American literary classic. It is full of quiet wisdom. It is a book
A fine novel about men. It explores male relationships, how many men try to build and fix things that are in the big scheme of things meaningless. A good read, which I will return to later in life to experience differently.
A heartbreaking, beautifully wrought masterpiece of devastating loss & questioned faith, of earned trust & unbreakable friendship. Ron Carlson¿s unerring command of language sweeps over you with its beauty and subtlety ¿ there¿s something about his voice that utterly compels you to listen, to heed every word he has to say. Even the most seemingly innocent, almost insignificant narrative incidents bear the immeasurable weight of Life on their shoulders. You can feel the mass of the Idaho sky above you, see the chasm of red rock canyon, and hear the lyrical sounds of the river below. Sentences like: ¿The sky was an amorphous glaring canopy, and the horizons were all tattered in such bright haze¿ just don¿t occur in common fiction. I found myself marking passages just because I liked the way the words rolled off the page into my lap: ¿...the wind was steady and even as if it were a permanent feature of the desert around them, the sparse sage and periodic igneous cairns of porous red cinders.¿ Even the general plotline is relatively innocuous ¿ three men get together to spend a summer living & working atop a barren plateau in southern Idaho, building a motorcycle stunt ramp aimed out over an enormous red rock canyon. The building of this ridiculous stunt ramp almost cheapens the work they do there; no one is more aware of this than the men. But the work is all part of a process for each man, whether they are aware of it or not. Each is fleeing hardship and pain in their lives, but when these men begin to trust each other and each of their work abilities on the site, they each begin to work inward on their own and heal their own wounds. Watching the transformation process of these characters, these men, in the hands of Mr. Carlson is unlike anything I can recall reading. Its always hard to compare books that you like with each other ¿ I find myself reading different genres for different reasons, different authors for different reasons. But in the last several years, the books that have affected me the most have been "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, which left me shattered and weeping with its portrait of the impending bleak future of humanity, and this one, which explores themes of friendship, loyalty, the bonds of men, and the inner workings of their souls. But more than anything, this just made me understand what it means to be a great writer.
A really good book, almost a great book. Carlson effortlessly moves between each of the three main characters' points of view as the reader experiences their 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--if I see it onstage after having read it to myself, the lines bloom in ways my own brain would never have come up with. The subtle meanings behind words could easily be glossed over by an inattentive reader.Why wasn't it a great book? Because Carlson was almost too subtle at times, and he lost opportunities to keep the reader's suspense going. For example, 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.