RON CARLSON is waiting for the cable guy. It's been more than a week now and he's trying a cowboy tactic, quietly saying exactly when he'll be available — something like staring a bull in the eyes to mesmerize it. Four months in Southern California and he's become the cable-guy whisperer.
Carlson's home reflects what he is: a workingman. A sofa, some chairs. Out on the patio, an empty can for cigarette butts. In the bathroom, a bar of soap and a toothbrush. Very little of his past beyond an iron toy truck his father gave him when he was 4 and some wooden decoys from back East.
His new novel, "Five Skies" (Viking: 244 pp., $23.95) is as lean as his new home: equally a departure and the absolutely logical place for this author of eight previous books — including four collections of stories, two novels and one young adult title — to be. "My first book, 'Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald,' " he recalls, "had a lot of bells and whistles — literary allusions, onomatopoeia — 'Look, Ma! I'm writing!' This one is entirely without bells and whistles. I wanted my story to stand on its own." He switches into the workingman's vernacular that is so very much a part of this new novel: "I measured twice and cut once." His style may have changed over the years, but Carlson says it's still a question of "advancing into the dark and not being certain. I just don't feel the need anymore to follow every little digression."
That's an important distinction, for "Five Skies" is Carlson's first novel in three decades. Lest we read too much into that, however, the author says the book simmered all along below the four collections of short stories he published in the course of those years. "Heck, I'm not even that old," he says. "I don't feel like there's been any time between anything. I just fell so deeply in love with the short story. Finally, I had the material I needed to get the novel right."
Carlson talks about writing as if he's building something. He discusses "not front-loading" and "balancing." He hands me a diagram that his father, an engineer, drew for him five years ago when Carlson began work on "Five Skies." It shows a ramp, a motorcyclist and an equation that specifies trajectory. Beneath the gap of the jump, a boat sits in a river, complete with fisherman and fish dutifully taking the bait. There is also a motorcycle, which has fallen into the water, having failed to reach the other side.
"Five Skies" is a life-changing work of fiction. It opens a window onto the lives of three men, Art, Darwin and Ronnie, who are building a motorcycle ramp on a plateau by a river in the Idaho wilderness. Art is a perfectionist, someone who builds sets for the movies — barns that burn again and again, houses with sliding roofs, Ferris wheels that roll off their footings. Darwin has been a builder on a nearby ranch for 50 years. Ronnie is a 19-year-old with a history of petty theft and not much of a future. Until now.
All three are at pivotal points in their lives — although, truth be told, "Five Skies" makes every moment seem pivotal — and Carlson unfolds their stories slowly and carefully. "These men," he says, "realize that their stories are important to them. It takes them time to trust each other, to begin to share and lean on each other." And they do, which gives their summer together a rare quality, a sweetness. Art becomes a kind of father to Ronnie. Darwin finds he can talk to Art about the recent death of his beloved wife. Ronnie learns that he can be good at something.
In January, Carlson came to Southern California from Tempe, Ariz., where he was an English professor and director of the creative writing program at Arizona State University. He is now co-director of UC Irvine's graduate fiction program, which in its 50-year history has helped develop authors such as Richard Ford, Michael Chabon and Alice Sebold. A man for whom place matters a great deal, both in writing and daily life, Carlson says that Southern California "reveals its secrets slowly. You find Albertson's," he tells me as we sit together in his living room, "and from there you build a life."
As a teacher for his entire working life, Carlson has given a lot of thought to the way stories work. Over the last four decades, he has written hundreds, of which, he says, he has known how only three or four would end. Although he was conscious, in "Five Skies," of "taking the lid off the pot slowly ... keeping the pressure on," he had no idea where the novel was going to go.
Carlson talks fluently about his writing, although once in a while he does veer toward epigrams, like a Buddhist sage. He describes weaving the narrative and the back story, the fulcrum of the novel and how the characters all "shake out" after that point, as well as his horror of "neat" endings. "This whole idea of closure is ridiculous," he declares, shaking his head. "I feel about it the way I feel about the shift key on my laptop. It came off and it's never gone back on in exactly the same way. Life is an aggregate of experience, which continually surprises us. Art was surprised by his feelings for Ronnie. Darwin was surprised he could talk to Art."
Just as Carlson wanted the narrative of "Five Skies" to stand on its own, he wanted the novel's characters to do so, as well. (A large section about Art's relationship with his mother was cut in service of this ideal.) Together, Art, Ronnie and Darwin form a family. In one ecstatically fulfilling scene, the two older men, after acknowledging their failings as communicators, manage to lift Ronnie out of a black mood brought on by a date with a girl in town. Like most of the men in Carlson's fiction, these three are vulnerable — particularly Ronnie, who, as Art puts it, "missed a link growing up." This is territory Carlson evokes better than anyone currently working (although Charles Baxter and Brad Leithauser are also good). "Because these people are strangers," he explains, "they can float a few things. I'm a Midwesterner. I'm a man. There's a set of locked gates, and we approach them with great trepidation."
Beyond its enormous beating heart, "Five Skies" is also an extremely detailed novel, especially when it comes to place and the specific nature of the work these men do there. "An evening wind had come up in short gusts and the rabbits lay in the sage with their ears down," Carlson writes. "Summer seemed stalled and the late-day weather now was laden with cumulus clouds bumped into haystacks and the false afternoon dark, lit by lightning in the black barrels so far away there was no thunder, just the periodic flashes. Some nights the storm broke, though, over the gorge and the lightning would step toward and then above their tent, the storm like a mob, the rain ripping up the night, big drops, an hour of crashing and then gone and the clean slate smell in the humbled sage."
The language here is so thorough that it fixes the plateau and campsite in the reader's interior landscape. The setting itself is, the author suggests, a combination of several places in his memory, in much the same way that the characters are also composites. "One of the great pleasures of writing this was being outside," Carlson says. He wanted the place to be "convincingly large without being magnificent."
Carlson grew up in Utah. His father was an engineer and a welder; his mother, a poet and prize-winning contest participant with a love for words and puzzles. The family lived in a working-class neighborhood of mechanics and carpenters. Still, neighbors brought their broken appliances and bicycles to Carlson's father to fix. "Things got better at my house," the author says, looking at his hands. He does this when he is proud of something.
"Writing a book is very personal," Carlson tells me. "It's a very personal relationship. A book will start with something as simple as two men talking about work. That gets the fire going. Sustaining that fire is the hard work. It takes attention and empathy to hone the characters." He counts empathy as one of the most important qualities a writer can bring to the page. Attention is also crucial. He tries to spot the thing on life's surface that "leads to something below the surface." In this way, being a writer has made him "awake to the world."
For all that, Carlson doesn't think too much about his readers when he's writing, although he's grateful for them. "The best are the people who want you to sign a book for their parents," he says. "It means they think this book can shine a light on some aspect of their relationship with their parents. It's different giving a book to a child, which can often be a way of saying, 'Here's how to get this right.' "
In any case, he says, "once it's written, you're safe. Some of the world comes along and some doesn't." As a friend once pointed out, "There are people who aren't born yet who will read you."
For now, Carlson is pleased with his pared-down life. He laughs easily at himself — at the fact, for example, that simply holding a pencil makes him feel much more at ease when having his picture taken. Lately, he says he "has felt like a little nerd" in his routines and patterns, which may be a function of having moved from a wide open space to one confined by condos and freeways.
"I have these habits," he says, referring to his predictable ways of working. "I'm not a crazy artist. Or am I?"