Return to Oakpine
From a widely admired author, a poignant novel about homecoming, friendship, growing up, and growing old for fans of Richard Ford and Richard Russo
In this finely wrought portrait of western American life, Ron Carlson takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, and into the lives of four men trying to make peace with who they are in the world.
In high school, these men were in a band. One of them, Jimmy, left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother. A successful novelist, he has returned thirty years later, in 1999—because he is dying.
With Carlson’s characteristic grace, we learn what has become of these friends and the different directions of their lives. Craig and Frank never left; Mason, a top lawyer in Denver, is back in town to fix up and sell his parents’ house. Now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most important thing they can do.
Return to Oakpine is a generous, tender look at friendship, family, and the roads not taken, by a writer at the peak of his craft.
The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help. There was a time when Louise would have tackled this whole project alone, but now it was too much and it had come up too soon. She called Craig at his hardware store downtown, and he came out one night after work. It was August. All the cottonwoods in his old neighborhood, pretty as a park so long ago, were now towering giants, clustering leafy cumulous that shaded the district and sounded like a river in the wind. They had split the sidewalks and dwarfed the old bungalows, half of which were still occupied by their original owners. The trees were the theme here, and Craig, who was happy for his move to the scrub oak mountain and the new mansion, felt them get to him as he went to her little porch. When he knocked, she didn’t invite him in but came outside and took him around to the garage. It was a classic one-bay garage that her husband had erected with community help years ago, wooden frame, plank walls, wooden shingles, peaked roof, a one-paned window with a layer of dust on it thick as speckled paint, and a little side door. This place was the old band to Craig, the room where he and Jimmy Brand and Frank Gunderson and Mason Kirby, who had lived three houses down, had practiced a hundred afternoons that fall. The little building hadn’t been opened for ten or twelve years, maybe longer.
Craig Ralston had been a big kid, and he had played football with Louise’s older son, Matt, who was long dead, and now Craig was a big man, square and strong, and though he was out of shape, there was something youthful about him. He still had all his curly hair and he spent his days hustling about the little hardware store, in which he knew where every hinge, every bolt, every flange lay, fetching things for people and kidding with them. There had been some talk years before, during the oil boom, about him starting his own construction business, but when his father nixed the plan, Craig came into the store. Building his house on the hill over the last year, though, had rocked Craig soundly; he loved such labor, and though he had stretched the work on his own house out as far as he could, he had finally poured the driveway last month and trenched the yard with a sprinkler system and sodded the lawns.
“What’s the program, Mrs. Brand?”
“Can you open this door Craig? I’ve got a job for you.”
Craig lifted and turned the old T-handle, but the bay door stuck. His hand came away rusty. They went to the side door, but that handle was locked solid, and she told him the key was long gone. Through the grimy glass Craig could see the dark space was full of stuff. Mrs. Brand was standing back from the edifice, her arms folded. The look of worry on her face promised to get worse.
Craig Ralston had eaten a lot of meals in her kitchen, hanging out with Jimmy. The fall of 1969, their senior year, she would feed the band after they’d practiced in Mr. Brand’s garage. Edgar Brand told the kids he’d park his Chevy pickup, the one he drove to his job at Union Pacific, on the driveway, “My beautiful vehicle will be out in the weather, boys, for the sake of the musical arts.” The driveways up and down the street were two strips of poured concrete with a run of grass between them. In those days Craig could see Mr. Brand in the living room reading the paper and watching television while he and Jimmy and Mason and Frank ate hamburger steaks and sliced tomatoes and huge chunks of steaming squash covered with salt and pepper and melting butter. They had been Life on Earth, classic rock ’n’ roll, and they had lasted one year, until graduation, when they flew apart like leaves in the wind. Craig Ralston went into the army and Vietnam with two dozen other kids from that class from Oakpine, and Mason went up to Minnesota for college, and Frank had spent a year at school at Laramie before returning and managing the Sears Outlet downtown and then buying the building. Jimmy Brand disappeared. Craig and Mason were home one Christmas, and Mason had gotten a card; Jimmy was in out in the world, having left Wyoming for good.
Mrs. Brand backed away from the building as if realizing its size and the dirty window had defeated her. She was wearing a faded blue-plaid apron—Craig noted it as something he’d known from the past— and he saw that she was going to put her hands in it and give up.
“I’m glad you called,” Craig told her. “You caught me daydreaming at the store.”
“No, you weren’t. Your father ran a good store, and so do you.”
“It looks like we’ll survive until they put in a Walmart, so that’s something. I finished that house, you know, Marci’s dream house on the hill—our dream house. I’m one of those characters who lives on the hill. You’ll have to come by.”
“Remember when that hill was the wilderness? I think the boys used to hunt right there—I can see the lights some nights,” Mrs. Brand said. “This town is changing, but you’re not one of the guys who live on the hill. They’re all from California, aren’t they?”
“Or Idaho. I’m glad Jimmy’s coming back. He got out and did something. Those books. He’s the only guy from Oakpine to write a book.”
“Is Marci at the museum?” “She is. She’s doing what she wants now. Larry’s a senior. You’ll see him.”
“My god,” she said. “Those babies.” She stood stiffly, having said all that she could manage, and she looked past Craig at the impossible garage, her eyes heavy now and laden with sadness and the weariness of all of time and time’s sadness.
“Mrs. Brand,” Craig started, “we all go way back. And Marci and I have that big house, and with Jimmy coming—” “Don’t, Craig,” the woman said. She put her hand on his forearm. “We have to do it this way.” She was looking at his face now. “Just tell me what we need, Mrs. Brand. I’ll get Larry, and we’ll get this done for you.”
A week later Larry Ralston came walking up the smooth driveway of the new house on the scrub oak hill, the house they’d just moved into last spring, taking those long rolling strides he took after a run, his hands on his hips, each breath three gallons of September, still a touch of summer in it, and he was smiling and shaking-his-head happy. He and his father had poured the cement for this concrete surface six weeks ago, and now he walked in a circle on the ramp “I ran around the town,” he said. Larry Ralston was seventeen and had been talking to himself for two or three months. “That town is captured in its entirety.” He turned in the new night and looked out over the dark world and the small pool of the sparkling network of lights of the town, and the knotted cluster of downtown Oakpine and the white halogen slash of the railroad, and beyond the dark pool to the colored lights in a distant grid, red and red, at the airport. It was the first time he’d run around the town, and he ran again now up the steps sweating and smelling the fall grass in the sod and the newness of the materials cut just this year, and it was funny not to tramp sawdust, as they’d done for weeks, into the kitchen.
There his mother stood now in her black bra, which was her nighttime ritual, doing the dishes in her underwear, her hair tied back in a ribbon, something she’d never done until this year, and it was almost seven. She said, “Where have you been?” thinking he’d been catting around, that age: seventeen, because it was what she was doing or about to do or considering doing or played at, and her thinking was that if her life had turned that way, then she saw it in everyone, even Larry, shining and breathing, and saying now, “I ran around this entire town.” He wanted a glass of water but didn’t want to get near her at the sink. “Mom, summer’s over, grab a shirt.”
She said the obvious thing: “It’s my house.”
And he, still having an ounce of humor about this woman and her black bra season, called out to the living room: “Dad, what is this with Mom?”
“Play through, Larry,” his father called.
“It’s a sports bra,” she said. “It’s a bathing suit, for Pete’s sake.”
“That’s worse,” he said. “They are all sports bras.” And he called to Craig Ralston, his father, “Are you dressed, at least?”
“I’m dressed,” she said. “Get used to it.”
“You going to get a tattoo?” he said. “I’m sorry for asking, because your son is not a smartass but is dislocated by your behavior, but what’s the answer: is a tattoo next?”
“What makes you think I don’t have one?”
“Oh my god. Dad?”
“I’m saying: play through. Where have you been?”
His mother turned to him and said quietly, “This is my house. This is not indecent. Where have you been?” She turned, not waiting for an answer, throwing her hands out at him as if tossing a towel, and left the room. She’d been walking like an athlete for months now, long decisive steps. Larry felt an electric bite run across his gut, and he sat suddenly on the kitchen chair, his legs now rubber, paper, ash. He felt the day put its hard hands on his shoulders.
“I ran around the town,” he said to the empty kitchen. The empty modern kitchen, the block kitchen island. It had been his mother, Marci, in the car tonight. He seized his knowing and boxed it and set it in his gut and stood up. He put his hand on his stomach. Maybe it was. But he had it boxed and set now, and his legs were back. Again now louder he called to where his father sat with the television: “Is the airport in Oakpine, Dad?”
“Of course it is. It’s the Oakpine airport.”
Larry found his burger under the bun in the cast iron frying pan on the stove and scooped it up with his left hand, dripping grease along his palm, which he licked away while opening the fridge with his right hand and grabbing the glass bottle of milk, half full, setting it down to pull the top off, and lifting it in a long cold drink.
“I mean in the town proper. City limits.”
“It’s in the county. The highway is the county line. Route thirty-one.”
“Then I ran around the whole town.” He was talking with his mouth full, and he walked to the living room entry and dropped his shoulder against the wall there and continued eating. They were building an ice mansion on the History Channel.
“Look at this, Larry: wiring and everything.”
“How’s your project with Mrs. Brand?”
“Fabulous. I need you tomorrow after school.”
“I’ve got football, but I can come on Saturday.” He watched his father watch one of the men set the keystone ice block into the entry arch of their cold palace. His partner followed with a splash of water from a bucket, sealing the deal. His father, the hardware store owner, should have been the captain of builders. They’d had a crazy summer finishing this house, and Larry could not remember his father happier.
“Don’t get any ideas from these actors,” Larry said. “Such a gimmick. Ice walls. They’re doing it to avoid that fiberfill insulation, for which I don’t blame them. That stuff itches, but you stick with drywall or whatever. They’ll put an ice house on TV, but it’s crazy. It’s a stunt, cool, but a stunt. It would be better TV to show us installing that garage door.” Yesterday they’d fought the two steel L-trolleys for the door’s rollers, adjusting each side for an hour.
“Where were you?”
“I ran around this town, Dad. I’m not saying it should be on the History Channel, though I’m sure I startled some ghosts and ran by the forgotten sites of four hundred short-lived romances, but I know it’s a first, and I know it’s a record. You could have done it in the day you and your buddies played that championship season, which I think was 1970 or so because the town was only Hackamore Flats and downtown, but it’s different now.” Larry finished the last bites of his hamburger and pulled his shirt over his head and wiped his face with it.
“These days such a venture is an hour and nineteen minutes running all the way, including a loop out around the silos and two crossings of the Union Pacific tracks at First Street, cornering at the old Trail’s End Motel, may it rest in peace, and back again over the trestle at the river.”
Craig Ralston regarded his son in the dark doorway. “Fall of 1969. We won every game, and Frank broke his leg. And you ran all of this because . . . ?”
Larry stood from leaning against the wall and held out his hands, which were suddenly this year huge. “Because I’m alive, Father.” He turned and went up to his room on the thick stairway carpet, now hearing the thump thump of music coming from the huge bedroom wing, his mother suddenly playing music too loud everywhere, and he called once more: “I’m alive!”
"A love story and a wilderness adventure that mount to a climax of shocking, and satisfying, violence."
— Los Angeles Times
"Carlson never drops an extra word or a false phrase, even as The Signal accelerates like an avalanche...If men can't be brought back to fiction by books as fine as this one, it's their own damn fault."
— The Washington Post
"Powerful...a bittersweet love story and a rousing adventure."
— The Miami Herald
"Read Ron Carlson's latest, The Signal, and you'll be convinced that the answer to your worries resides in the woods, in getting back to basics....It's a sweet, tidy little book about a broken rancher. And yet it won't just help you pass the time, it will help you out." — Esquire
"Long revered as a master of the short story, Carlson has a talent for describing landscape (both internal and external), and that translates here intact. At fewer than two hundred pages, it's beach ready, too."
"Ron Carlson is probably the best American writer you've never heard of."
— The Daily Beast
"Uncommonly fine...Carlson's writing is crisp and blunt, much like the very Wyoming landscape he describes. The Signal is about small, tight things that widen out into immensities. it is about love and regret and the pain of loss and the wild parts of Wyoming." — Chicago Tribune
Praise for Five Skies:
"A life-changing work of fiction."
— Los Angeles Times
"Carlson's style--low-key, deliberate, reminiscient of both early Hemingway and contemporay James Salter...can turn even a shopping list into a poem."
— The Washington Post
— The Atlantic
"Ron Carlson's beautifully crafted and emotionally wrenching novel about nonverbal but deep-feeling males in flyover country is more refreshing than an ice-cold Coors." — Entertainment Weekly
Praise for Return to Oakpine
“Carlson’s new novel, with its themes of male friendship and second chances, hoes much the same furrow as his lovely previous books Five Skies and The Signal… Carlson’s crafted an emotive yet pellucid prose style that conveys the profound spiritual satisfactions of homecoming.”—The Wall Street Journal
“As stirring and memorable and utterly rejuvenating a novel as you’ll read…Carlson infuses these pages with such conviction, such perfectly orchestrated pathos…the book is as lean and structured as a sonnet, and it has a split-focus climax as sharp as an ax.”—The Washington Post
“In this new book of his, Ron Carlson has done a splendid job of making a reader feel at home in Oakpine…Carlson can sometime sound the music of the entire novel in a single sentence.”—Alan Cheuse, “All Things Considered,” National Public Radio
“Engaging…These men and their tender, disgruntled families get almost enough to sustain them, but not quite enough to calm the inner cry. These characters will stay with you because this is how we are too.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[An] eloquent and moving novel…the tension that drives Return to Oakpine [is] between what we want to do and what we need to do, between our dreams and our responsibilities.”—Los Angeles Times
“In this novel by an American master, four middle-aged friends, once members of the same high school band, reunite in their Wyoming hometown thirty years later, reconciling the people they’ve become with the kids they used to be.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Carlson excels in small-town Western Americana, in both embracing and interrogating nostalgia in quiet, controlled prose…a humane portrait of the lives we lead and leave behind, peeling back nostalgia’s gold veneer with grace, empathy, and a pragmatic sense of optimism.”—Kansas City Star
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