Five Skies is a lovely, focused work about men, western men trying to cope with their demons, sharing hard physical work and coming to be friends and to help each other through this imposed closeness.
Carlson is known mostly as a short story writer. It has been decades since his last novel. Unlike the work of other writers who straddle forms, this does not seem like a collection of stories, but a pointed, purposeful novel. Darwin Gallegos is a contractor charged with constructing a special facility for an Evel Kneval stunt in a mostly-unspoiled Idaho wilderness. He hires two day-laborers to help with this summer-long project. Arthur Key, an expert at devising one-of-a-kind constructions for use in films, has fled his Los Angeles home, smitten with grief and shame after the death of his ne’er-do-well brother and his (Art’s) affair with the brother’s wife. Ronnie Parnelli is a young man on the run from a work-release program, a petty criminal who aspires to accomplishment and a straighter path. The three share work, play and some of themselves with each other over the course of this project. Darwin cannot or will not get over the death five months prior of his beloved wife. How they grow, communicate, accomplish is at core here. Carlson must know plenty about the reality of hard labor and the technical aspects of putting things together. The book is replete with details on how this or that is done. The detail can get a bit painful at times, but it does serve to highlight the value in doing work that produces actual, as opposed to virtual, stuff. People suffer grave injustice to their bodies in doing such labor and that is shown. Sometimes the work is for a less-than-excellent purpose, but there is still value in doing work well. That value is a shared one here, and serves bind the three men together.
The skies of the title are concrete, and beautiful, the actual changing skies of Idaho. Carlson has a gift for describing nature with a deft and uplifting touch. There is a counterpoint here between the physicality of the labors in which the three are engaged and the emotional changes, the emotional work each must do to complete their personal projects. Each has a gap across which they must jump to get from here to there and they help each other construct their personal ramps.
Does the scene in which the guys indulge in local hot springs imply a baptism, a rebirth? Does their fishing have religious connotations? I don’t know. Maybe a hot spring is just a hot spring. But without fishing too much for metaphors intended or not, I can say that Five Skies was a pleasure to read, well-crafted and poetic. It takes you from here to there in style.