I've had kind of a mixed history with Ron Carlson's work--back when Rhian and I were in grad school, I loved his story collection Plan B For The Middle Class, which was funny and unsettling and diverse in approach. Carlson was kind of a poor man's John Barth, or a more accessible one, anyway.
I didn't exactly become disillusioned with Carlson--indeed, I think he kept up the quality over the years. But it seemed to me his stories were treading over familiar ground for a long time, and I never did get around to his novels. I figured I owed him another chance, and when I saw this new novel, I decided it was high time. The book is short, has an intriguing title and a cool cover, and I ended up reading it in a single night.
I must say, in spite of an opening sentence that reads like self-parody, it's quite good. It is, like my own recent novel, about a guy who goes into the woods and bad things happen, and it's written in blunt, precise prose, and moves very quickly. (The first sentence that I disliked is thoroughly anomalous.) Indeed, it's as straightforward a story as I've read in recent memory: a man named Mack has gone off the rails and ended up in jail; when he gets out, his ex-wife agrees to accompanying him on one last chaste backpacking trip, to say goodbye. But Mack is tangled up in some kind of shadowy criminal enterprise, the outlines of which even he can't see, and he is equipped with a waterproof military-grade BlackBerry which is supposed to help him find some mysterious electronic object in the woods for his sinister employer. We get the story of his life and marriage, cut through with various kinds of menace, which all turn out to be the same menace. And in the end, the book turns into a very fine meditation on masculine failure, combined with Jack-Londonesque adventure scenes, a bittersweet love story, and a moment of bizarre macabre high-tech weirdness that appears flown in from a Neal Stephenson novel.
I have to admit, I like the high-tech weirdness, even though it is completely extrinsic to the story. And the ending is satisfying--perhaps too satisfying, and certainly very dramatic. And I think that, after all these years, I like Ron Carlson again.