In his excellent and pointed volume about writing, “Ron Carlson Writes A Story,” Ron Carlson (who else?) talks about the necessary inventory for a story to gain weight (my words) and develop credibility (his).
He’s dissecting the beginning of his story, “Governor’s Ball,” sentence by sentence. “In my first sentence there is some inventory: the carpet, the load of junk, and mention of the Governor’s Ball. They begin to form an inventory of evidence. And with this evidence what am I trying to prove? I am trying to prove that there was a wet carpet, a load of junk, a ball.”
Later: “One rule for now shall be: include things. Not because we’re trying to clutter our stories up so that the sheer catalogues of clothing, furniture, drinks, sporting equipment make their own kind of effluvial music, or because we want to select the most symbolic or meaningful element in a character’s life, but because we’re looking for a way to survive the writing of the story.”
First, you have to love those two words together: effluvial music.
Second, to seek some evidence of what Carlson means in the paragraphs above, check out “Five Skies.”
In the opening few paragraphs, Carlson dumps a bunch of “inventory” on the Idaho landscape: lumber, construction gear, sleeping bags, a Ford flat bed truck, an Army surplus jeep, a winch, a tractor, a Porto-John and more. Men are moving in.
Like Mark Spragg or Kent Haruf at their best, “Five Skies” is grounded, rooted to the earth. The common elements are the great outdoors, poetic prose and serene, rugged characters.
The setting is spare and rich. Ron Carlson chisels the details from the stunning landscape and describes with care the machines and equipment brought to this remote spot. Throughout “Five Skies” is the stark contrast of manmade gear scarring, drilling and reshaping the west. (Agreed that some of the construction scenes could have used moving into third or fourth gear; they are a bit glacial in pace.) The landscape is changing and surely, also, will the people working it. We know that. We just don’t know how.
The crew is working on building a motorcycle jump ramp to shoot a stuntwoman across a canyon and while the ramp takes shape Carlson carefully extracts the backgrounds of the men brought together to do the work. They are an odd bunch but Carlson finds the dignity in each of them. He least lets them be themselves. Arthur Key is, well, key. His approach to the world is measure and plan, know what you’re going to do. Avoid accidents.
“Arthur Key was furiously busy running two crews. His company, Good Measure, did all kinds of field projects for the film studios, but he had become the expert on extreme vehicle positioning, and because his safety record was exactly 100 percent, the contracts he took on were all big tickets. Executives knew they could save a hundred thousand dollars in emergency insurance by using Key, and he prospered. He drew the line at crashes, fires and explosions.”
The writing is thick cream. An old yellow road grader “reclined in the bright sage like the rusted skeleton of a creature as primitive and forgotten as the isolated plateau.” The book isn’t long but it isn’t breezy. There are descriptions of tools and construction work that Carlson treats like he was watching an athletic performance. You feel the work. The combination of nature—fish, rabbits, birds—with augers, railroad ties and heavy equipment is deftly done. The men bond, face challenges and confront their own pasts. They eat—the food also receives the attention of a poet’s eye; the men bond over their meals—and they drink.
The ending brings its share of surprises. Like many of the other events in “Five Skies,” the twin peaks of tragedy just sort of happen, they are told with the same cold and clear eye as, say, the description of a man digging a hole. This “less is more” approach is what reminded me of Haruf and Spragg—just the telling details told with a minimum of fuss. The telling details, the inventory, the stuff of life.