the signal

In Ron Carlson‘s new novel, The Signal, a book that includes both clotheslines and abandoned places, each word counts, as each word should but often doesn’t in novels. The Signal packs a lot into its 184 pages: six days in the life of its main character Mack.

Its cover looks, as one of my children said, “like a book I wouldn’t read.” I’m not sure whether he meant it looks “sensational” or “like a guy’s book,” but I agree on both counts about the cover, not about what’s between it. In The Signal, it’s a toss-up whether the language or the story is the most alluring part of the novel.

“This was his life, riding out two hours from a ranch that itself was an hour from town and still knowing there were unknown hours ahead.”

“The tinted window went down and there was her face.”

The descriptions will give you goose bumps, and the dialogue is tight. Listen to this conversation between Mack and his father, whom he describes as “…his presence in the world was like order itself.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“Are you going by your gut?”

“By something.”

“Do you think you can get a girl by showing her a bear?”

“No idea,” Mack said.

His father folded his arms and leaned on the doorframe. “Me neither. How many were there?”

Mack is also the narrator, and we’re right there in his point of view, a close third, yet without even a space break, Carlson zooms out seamlessly, giving us a little distance: “The two hikers stepped out into the high-atmosphere sunshine…”

Some will argue that there’s too much plot, but in my opinion The Signal offers a brilliant example of plot arising out of character: Mack’s choices drive the plot forward.

I’ll leave you with my favorite passage:

“The sun was weak light, and the chill was general headed for a real freeze. The watery yellow day wanted to break his heart. The season had foundered and each day was now a brave imitation of the day before. In September the year fell away and in the car you’d get a late baseball game on the radio as you drove to town sounding like it was coming from another planet, the static and the crowd noise and the announcers trying to fend off the fall shadows.”

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14 thoughts on “the signal

  1. This sounds beautiful! I’d never heard of it before; thanks for the recommendation. I especially like “The season had foundered and each day was now a brave imitation of the day before.”


  2. You went from a 1000 page book, a few months ago, to a 184 pager. Must have felt like a New York minute in comparison.

    I’ve got some flowers for you over at my blog in honor of your literary wisdom.


  3. Nice, Cindy.
    I agree with what you said about the plot growing out of the character–I couldn’t come up with those exact words to describe how I felt about the book, but that’s exactly how I feel. I liked it a lot. And that last quote is only one of many beautiful passages.


  4. Emily, that’s the line that stopped me and then I went back to reread the entire passage and then I could just hear the static from the baseball game and realized in a way I never had before that as baseball fades so does fall.


  5. Peggy, thanks for your comment. For some reason I don’t remember Ron Carlson’s beautiful way with words from Five Skies, but it jumped out here. I’ll have to go back to that one to see if I just missed it.


  6. Walt, I’m glad you brought those images up.

    On clotheslines, a nice bit of dialogue:

    “That’s why I hang a clothesline,” he said.
    “To welcome you home,” she said.
    “So I can find the way,” he said. “But welcome home.”

    On abandoned places, a little bit of description:

    “There were two old log cabins along the way, slumped and fallen in, new trees thrusting through the collapsed roof beams…they made up stories about the lonely men who lived here…”

    Thanks for your comment!


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