Ron Carlson’s new The Signal is a taut and suspenseful novel written with beauty and precision, centered around a camping trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. For ten years, Mack and his wife Vonnie have gone hiking in that area every September, but this year is starkly different. Since the last trip, Mack has been “running in low-rent behavior for almost a year, scrambling for money, crossing the line when it worked for him, drinking too much because it didn’t matter and the company he kept drank.”
In the face of his financial troubles, with his ranch in danger of foreclosure, Mack got involved with some meth runners. Vonnie left Mack when his behavior became unacceptable and probably divorced him, though he doesn’t know that for certain, as he never opened the letters from her lawyer, “golden envelopes with return addresses pretty as wedding invitations.” Mack recently finished a stint in jail for busting the windshield of Vonnie’s new beau’s fancy vehicle. Feeling sorry for Mack, Vonnie agreed to complete their annual camping trip one last time.
This backstory is delivered cleverly amid the present action of the six-day camping trip. The caustic barbs in the dialogue between Mack and Vonnie reveal their complicated past. (“Somebody’s been to REI,” the perpetually broke Mack comments when Vonnie brings out a new pair of binoculars.) Mystery drives the first part of the book, as Carlson metes out the details of Mack and Vonnie’s past, while suspense powers the second part of the book, as new dangers face the couple.
Carlson’s dialogue and description is crisp and witty, and it feels as though his years as a short story expert have allowed him to condense into less than 200 pages a story it might take another writer 400 pages to tell. The result is a potent page-turner that mingles old-fashioned themes of love gone wrong and nature’s consolations with modern trappings such as a crashed high-tech military drone, meth addicts, and a BlackBerry.
Mack and Vonnie met when they were 17 and she and her family were staying at Mack’s father’s guest ranch. Mack led guests on horseback rides, and had to search for Vonnie when she sneaked out on her own seeking bears to photograph and became lost. They keep in touch intermittently while they attend separate colleges. Then Mack’s father dies:
“His father’s death changed it all. At he 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…Without his father’s expectations, he found himself without a ruder and he knew it, and he drew a sharp breath when he saw that there was some part of him that was glad for it.”
Mack closes the guest ranch and starts doing some shady computer consulting work for a wealthy local named Charley Yarnell. Vonnie contacts Mack, they meet on the ides of September for what was to be their first annual hike, and marry soon after. They are happy for a while, though always poor, and eventually the strain of trying to keep the ranch afloat comes between them.
When they meet for their tenth and final hiking trip, Mack presents himself as a changed man, but actually he’s brought along a BlackBerry with a GPS tracking device that Yarnell has given him to locate an experimental single engine airplane that has crashed in the mountains. His mission is to retrieve “some kind of secret” object “about the size of a book” that has dropped from the plane, which Yarnell says is needed by the government. Mack tells himself that this is the last morally suspect job he’ll do, just to save the ranch. Mack hides his mission from Vonnie, but desperately needs the money Yarnell will pay him if he locates the crash site. This ends up having some dire implications, and there’s even more danger lurking for the couple in the woods, as a man Mack associated with when he was driving drugs from one state to another turns up in the woods.
The gripping narrative has plenty of plot twists, but there are many other pleasures along the way in The Signal, not the least of which is Carlson’s precise, loving descriptions of the food Mack and Vonnie eat while camping. Here’s Mack cooking pancakes: “Mack laid more wood on the fire and set the grill on the stones and the black iron pan on that until the butter started to skate. He lifted the warm pan and poured in four dollops of his pancake mix and they spread into pretty circles and fixed.” Mack is reticent, and seems to best express his love for Vonnie through the elaborate backcountry meals he creates.
It’s fun to see recurrent themes in Carlson’s work resurface and take on new dimensions to fit the latest narrative. One of Carlson’s themes that came up especially in his last novel, Five Skies, is the characters’ belief that doing careful work can save their lives and set them on the right path. In The Signal, when Mack is at his lowest point, he’s hanging out with meth runners, and realizes that no mechanical task they are accountable for will be completed with precision. “These were drug dealers. There wasn’t going to be fresh oil in the engines or good tires or a tight lug nut or any single thing done right. This was a free fall at the shiterie. His father said that at times when things ran careless.” Mack’s dead father serves as his conscience in this regard, popping into his head with reminders: “His father had taught him not to make two troubles into three by hurrying.”
As the story unfolds, the reader can’t be certain that Mack will ever be able to win Vonnie back, but it seems that Mack will endure, as he manages to carry out simple acts of competence in the woods amid danger, keeping his head and doing things right. As the tarnished, heartbroken hero of The Signal, Mack goes a long way toward escaping the trouble he’s made for himself by spending six eventful days in the Wyoming woods.