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?”
“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.”