NEA Big Read
Five Skies

Five Skies

by Ron Carlson

Everything he'd put together for weeks was now loose in his heart and the pieces were sharp.


"Regardless of how tech savvy we are, we are from a place and we live in a place. I've always used place or setting to find my stories." — Ron Carlson in superstition [review]

In the mountain desert plains of southern Idaho, a ranch foreman hires two drifters—a Hollywood stunt engineer and a 19-year-old runaway—to set up camp and spend a summer constructing a motorcycle ramp and spectator bleachers for a publicity stunt to launch a female daredevil across a deep river gorge. The three strangers are buoyed by hard work done well and, though they don't talk much, slowly begin to share past wounds and deep-felt regrets that haunt their days and nights. A sense of omnipresent foreboding runs through the narrative of Ron Carlson's novel Five Skies and its austere, isolated landscape. "Against our transient human sorrows Carlson subtly juxtaposes the ongoing natural world — the skies of Idaho, the steep gorge with the rushing river at its bottom, the dark starry nights, the omnipresence of death, when rabbits scream as a hawk strikes" (The Washington Post).

To build the ramp, the three men clear brush from the site, dig holes for posts, smooth asphalt for the runway and construct a fence along the canyon's edge. They wake early each morning to the smell of fresh coffee and a hearty breakfast sizzling on the grill. In his mid-60s and the former foreman of the nearby Rio Difficulto ranch, Darwin Gallegos is managing this job at the request of his former employer, Biff, and does all the cooking. When they need materials, the men drive their flatbed truck into Mercy, the nearest town, where—not long after the job began—they had to take Ronnie Panelli, the young kid, to attend to a bad injury to his shoulder. Mercy is home to Traci, the girl Ronnie takes a shine to, and her violent ex-boyfriend who sees Ronnie as a threat. Arthur Key, a large, strong, well-respected engineer taking a break from his life back in California, fills out the third part of the trio. He looks after Ronnie like an older brother. "The men do what they have to do, up against the real facts of the place and the day," Carlson told New West. "I wanted their reactions and interactions to be what men might do, not what characters serving a story might do."

Arthur wishes they were building a bridge instead of a ramp for what seems to him like a jump doomed to fail. With a reputation for dependable and safe structures to support film stunts, he's been known to walk away from a job when he thought the project might jeopardize lives. He's burdened with a deep guilt at failing to look after his younger brother who recklessly signed up to do a film stunt and died on the set. "I wanted [Arthur] to be a consummate craftsman/engineer who could deal with any broken thing in the real world, but I also knew he would be locked up, first as a man, and then by his past," Carlson told New West. "He can read a blueprint, but his heart is trickier, more coded, and he's learned not to trust it."

Darwin, who's managing the ramp project and has lived in the area for years, is coping with his own despair. He recently lost his longtime, beloved wife to a small plane accident and is plagued with a simmering anger and spiritual emptiness. "He doesn't wish to be healed, but long days of physical labor help him, as they do Arthur" (The Washington Post). "Oddly enough in literature: work is exotic," said Carlson. "We don't have much of it in song or story" (Juked).

In many ways, it is the teenager, Ronnie, who gives the other two men hope as they take him under their wing. A former petty thief, Ronnie fills them with pride as he learns how to operate the machinery and use the tools and becomes a fine carpenter, all the while learning to believe in himself and show restraint. "I wanted these to be simple men, each hauling his life forward as well as he could," says Carlson. "They have been reduced by their histories, and they are weary or incapable of subterfuge. Sometimes, all you've got is the day, and I tried to use the days of their time together to test them, to see how they might emerge" (Penguin). "Five Skies is like one of those heartbreaking Raymond Carver stories in which a luckless character catches a glimpse of something better, a small moment of rightness about the world, and, instead of cheering us, this glimmer of hope makes us even more anxious—because we know it can't possibly last" (The New York Times).

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