The Signal

The adventures of a cowboy and his ex-wife on a fishing trip gone very wrong.

The Signal By Ron Carlson Viking 192 pp., $25.95

I once spent a week at Girl Scout camp in the middle of a Florida summer. I came back with 53 mosquito bites (yes, I counted) and a god’s eye that we made in arts and crafts. This is by way of saying that I don’t think I’m the target audience for Ron Carlson’s new novel about a fishing trip gone very wrong, The Signal.

Of course, I’ve never worked on a road crew (all you motorists can thank me later), and I absolutely loved Carlson’s previous novel, “Five Skies.”

Carlson excels at articulating the inner life of men who don’t talk a whole lot, and his love of the short-story format means that he’s not inclined to use 20 words where one will do just fine. Mack, a cowboy whose 375-acre ranch is mired in debt, and Vonnie, his ex-wife, are meeting in September for one last fishing trip. Mack just got out of jail for reasons we’ll learn about later, and Vonnie is living with a lawyer in Jackson Hole, so they’ve technically already gone their separate ways.

But Mack needs what a metrosexual would term “closure,” and Vonnie still has enough residual fondness left in her to give it to him. “Mack,” she says, when he expresses astonishment that she arrived at the trail head, “It’s been a hideous year and you hideous in it, but it’s my word.”

Over a week, their hearts and nerves abrade as the two go through the motions of an annual ritual during which they first fell in love. They camp and fish and Mack remembers earlier trips with his late father. Those conversations are the most poignant of the novel, and theirsa relationship well worth mourning. Ever since his dad died while Mack was still in college, he’s been scrambling and losing ground. “He’d had a headache or so it seemed for five years, always scraping by, eking out, scratching, and the disappointment yawned and wore at him, something he never honored by calling it a name.”

When he isn’t making coffee or cooking trout stuffed with lemon wedges, Mack also keeps checking his BlackBerry. Unbeknownst to the already suspicious Vonnie (who could probably clean up modeling for REI), her “reformed” ex has taken on one last job for a dodgy character who claims to work for the government. Mack’s supposed to find “something” that’s been lost in the woods. (That’s right about when I’d start asking if it’s bigger than a breadbox, but Mack’s gotten used to jobs where you just don’t really want to know.)

Then Vonnie asks what that noise is, and a reader suddenly realizes that Mack has led them both into a world of trouble. This was where I started to lose my footing with the book. Not to give the particulars away, but the plot takes a twist that’s a staple in Hollywood, where the main character, who has been a first-class jerk by his own admission, can say, “Yeah, but at least I’m not as big of a monster as those guys.” As long as you’re aiming high, buddy.

In compensation, “The Signal” offers Carlson’s sure-handed, stripped-down prose (I loved his description of fishing flies as “like a fabulous meeting of jewelry and semiconductors”); a deep love of nature; and wonderfully laconic lines such as “A horse on a dude ranch eats a lot of apples.” And unlike a lot of manly-men writers (I’m talking to you, Hemingway), Carlson seems to have a genuine appreciation of women.

Of course, when, like Vonnie, she can hike all day, land a two-foot trout, and remembers to bring bear claws, what’s not to appreciate?

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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