Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: "Return to Oakpine" by Ron Carlson

I'm a big fan of books that chronicle the reunion of childhood friends long separated. The opportunity to relate as an adult to people who knew you when you were younger, to see how life has affected them (and let them see how it has affected you), are tremendously compelling narrative devices, and if you combine those with a little bit of emotional poignancy, you've got a winner as far as I'm concerned. So it should come as no surprise that I was utterly taken in by Ron Carlson's wonderful new novel, Return to Oakpine.

In the late 1960s, Craig Ralston, Jimmy Brand, Mason Kirby, and Frank Gunderson were inseparable friends in the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming. During high school, they formed a band, called interchangeably The Rangemen, Wildfire, and Life on Earth. The band brought a fervent excitement to their lives and their small town, and through all of the practices and performances, their friendships deepened, until one day, a tragic accident claimed the life of Jimmy's older brother, Matt, the town's most highly regarded athlete. Unable to deal with his parents' reaction to the accident, as well as his own homosexuality, Jimmy left Oakpine shortly thereafter, moving to New York to become a well-established writer.

Thirty years later, Jimmy, destitute and dying of AIDS, returns to Oakpine. Banished by his father to live in the refurbished garage, Jimmy renews contact with his old friends. Craig and Frank never left the town—Craig took over his family's hardware store, while Frank owns a restaurant/bar. Mason became a successful lawyer in Colorado, but returns home to sell his parents' house, and finds himself caught up in his friends' lives again, while dealing with the dissolution of his marriage and uncertainty about his future.

Meanwhile, Craig's son, Larry, a high school senior, is dealing with many of the same problems his father and his friends did 30 years ago. Caught between loyalty to his best friend Wade and his love for Wade's girlfriend, Wendy, he is ready to leave Oakpine for good after high school, although he and Wendy develop a close relationship with Jimmy. And Craig and Frank both must deal with the women in their lives as well.

It is both nostalgia and Jimmy's looming mortality that push the four to reunite their band. This decision opens up old feelings, brings back long-forgotten memories and joys, and pushes them toward the future, but a future faced together, not apart.

Ron Carlson is a fantastic writer. In his previous books I've loved both his use of language and imagery to capture both emotions and the evocative nature of the West. But I feel he's utterly outdone himself with Return to Oakpine. It's a familiar story, one you've read before and one whose ending you can predict, but it is so beautifully told, so emotionally poignant, it's still as powerful as if you had never read a story with this plot before. While some of the characters' quirks—particularly in dialogue—took a little getting used to, I found myself torn between wanting to devour the story as quickly as possible and wanting to savor it for as long as I could, because I knew I would be sad when it ended.

"If a person was raised here, he knows the way the light falls in this town on any given week, even you who have been absent for years. That isn't true for any other place for you."

Going home after being away for so long isn't always easy, and reconnecting with old friends doesn't always work the way you hope it will. But Return to Oakpine made you long for those feelings, and captured them so perfectly. I know I'm a bit of a sap, but I thought this was really terrific.

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