THE SIGNAL  by Ron Carlson


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Energetic depiction of a rocky mountain romance that sputters along for an eventful decade.

Carlson (The Speed of Light, 2003, etc.) takes as his setting the formidably gorgeous terrain in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, where protagonist Mack grows up on his widowed father’s dude ranch, accommodating and charming tenderfoot tourists in pursuit of controlled adventure and spectacle. One such is Vonnie, a headstrong educated Easterner with a musical gift. The expanse of their relationship is slowly revealed from the vantage point of Vonnie’s return to Wyoming for a tenth annual backpacking mountain trip, by which time her attraction to Mack has grown cold. Lengthy flashbacks focus mostly on Mack, a bright but wayward youngster whose stamina and stoicism endear him to the mercurial Vonnie. At 17, she wanders away from the ranch and is rescued by the taciturn but already smitten Mack. Vonnie goes back East; Mack’s dad dies; and the young man begins to drift: “Without his father’s expectations, he found himself without a rudder.” Mack attends college and learns skills that get him work as a computer consultant for some very shady clients. Soon he’s entrenched in a life of crime and exposure to lethal violence. His impulsive marriage to Vonnie quickly unravels; she’s ever hopeful, but, unlike Mack, nobody’s fool. There’s too much repetition in otherwise superbly managed wilderness scenes, but the novel simmers with a strongly constructed impression of trouble perpetually lurking nearby, nicely captured in the local tall tale of Hiram, a lovelorn recluse and stalker. These strengths, along with the vivid figures of Vonnie and Mack, will keep most readers turning the pages.

A bit of a comedown from the bracing high of Five Skies (2007), Carlson’s best novel to date, but an eye-opening trip well worth taking nevertheless.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-670-02100-0
Page count: 190pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2009


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