I needed a little break from reading those ‘bullying books’ and wanted to read an adult book. So I decided to go for The Signal because I knew Ron Carlson to be an excellent short story writer, and I figured this slim novel would be just as good.
The Signal is great reading, and I think teens who may have tired of YA formula romances will like this novel a lot. Adults should love it. It’s such good writing. While reading, I kept thinking this is what Hemingway would have written if he’s had a better understanding of women, been less of an ego. Carlson is something like Cormac McCarthy minus a lot of the violence. (But not minus all of the violence.) There’s just all this beauty in the world at the same time that danger is approaching and a relationship is going to pieces. To pull all three of those elements together and not waste words is quite an achievement.
Mack and Vonnie are taking their tenth annual backpacking and fishing trip in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. They’d been married, but have recently divorced. This is to be their last trip together although Mack is hoping somehow to make a connection with Vonnie. But he’s messed up so badly recently. His mistakes began with the good intention of saving the ranch that had been in his family for generations. This made me think of how adults always told me, when I was young, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It was a common aphorism.
In The Signal, Mack has landed in a sort of hell on earth, never mind an afterlife. He has worked for shady characters, not questioning the drug deals that he must’ve known his employer was setting up. He’s been involved with a broken woman, hurting both her and Vonnie. Finally, he started working for a man his father knew, someone making a lot of money in what seems to be unofficial government operations.
When things continue to go badly for Mack, he, in a drunken rage, attacked the car of Vonnie’s new boyfriend, and ended up in jail.
Now, on his trip in the Wind River Mountains, he hopes to make a lot of money by finding something for that unofficial government operator—something that crashed landed and needs to be recovered. He’s bit off more than he can chew. And considering the enemies he’s made over the last several years, there’s more at stake in this trip to the wilderness than he understands.
High school housekeeping: The Signal is a short and powerful adult novel. It’s full of danger, the opening of old wounds in a complicated relationship, and life in the outdoors. It shows the world from a guy’s point of view, one who has really messed up, but one with whom we sympathize. I’d recommend it to anyone, but if you are a guy who doesn’t read a lot and is ready (or being compelled by a teacher) to read a novel, this would be a good choice. You’ll care about Mack and the people around him. Your teacher will be impressed by your good taste in literature. 🙂