Mandahla: Five Skies Reviewed

Some words are overused by reviewers and blurb-crafters, but when they fit, they are ideal. "Luminous" and "pitch-perfect" are just right for this novel, the story of three strong yet fragile men who come together on a construction site in the Idaho Rockies. Darwin Gallegos, the former foreman at Rio Difficulto, has taken on this job after leaving the ranch when his beloved wife died. Her death "was like a murder to [him], God's accident, the one that stops everyone." Arthur Key and Ronnie Panelli are hired by Gallegos almost on a whim in Pocatello, for the semi-secret project that many in the area are opposed to. Panelli is a kid, with a petty thievery rap, "[whose] look went all over the place--he was pale and starved and jangled." Arthur Key, a large muscular man, has been running away from the life and people he felt he had ruined. Key had so far avoided work like this, "projects [with] stupidity and a lot of money meeting in some bad, temporary place."
"It's a nice place, right?"
"Beautiful" Key said. "We'll fix that."
The men start work on a plateau above a remote river gorge, on Rio Difficulto property. The plan is to build a ramp for a daredevil cyclist's jump, with viewing stands for what surely seems to be a death leap. Key is perfect for the job, having been a premier Hollywood stunt engineer, and brings a carefulness and deliberation to the work.

Panelli becomes an expert at many things, particularly the weather; he learns carpentry, he meets cows, he becomes confident.
"Your past as an outlaw is less colorful every day. The legend is absolutely drying up," Key told him.
"It never once was colorful."
"Well, that sounds like the attitude of a person ready to learn to weld."
The creation of the infrastructure and the ramp is surprisingly absorbing and parallels Ronnie's growth as a worker and as a man. The others change, too. Arthur Key wants to tell his story to someone but cannot, Darwin Gallegos doesn't want to tell his story, and Ronnie Panelli doesn't know how. But Key realizes that his range of motion was growing, they were all expanding: "He knew he was less of a ghost, but he didn't know the measure." Their oblique conversations, dry and remote as the landscape, the curative effect of the wilderness, and the honesty of their craft ("And so their days ended with this regard for their tools and the days began, as they squinted over coffee, in the exhilarating open air knowing where the shovel was, the chain, the awl.") combine to change their lives. The long expanse of the skies and the river gorge echo the distance between the men, but they are brought closer by the healing that friendship brings, and the saving grace of respect and even love, although "love" is not a word these men would use.

Carlson is a master of quiet lyricism, no less sure with natural descriptions than he is with people. He captures the always-changing magnificent Idaho sky in myriad ways: "the dark sky still brimming with the tilted starwheels," "the sky had stopped and the clouds were backing up like bricks," and, "[it] had closed now and become a luminescent charcoal ceiling scalloped with glowing seams." As the men are setting up the camp tent, unfolding the canvas, "Skinny Ronnie Panelli stood amid the half ton of drapery like a character caught in the wrong myth." The woman Key had left in California, Alicia, "had become the soft edge of his long days." When Darwin poured coffee, "[he] set the cups uneasily on the tailgate of the jeep, amid the dried overlapping maps of spilled coffee there." The temptation is to quote endlessly, to grab someone and make them read passage after passage: "Then they spoke several minutes more, toeing the ground, and talking the way men do on the pitcher's mound in baseball games, making no eye contact whatsoever, looking past each other and tucking in their shirts with a finger, as if everything had been settled long ago in the big book that rested shut somewhere else far away." Five Skies is a beautiful book, filled with gentle melancholy and tough men, a combination that works when crafted by Ron Carlson.--Marilyn Dahl

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