Return to Oakpine starts with opening up a room, a “classic, one-bay garage.” The room is “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 is the room where Craig Ralston, Jimmy Brand, Frank Gunderson and Mason Kirby had practiced “a hundred afternoons that fall,” long ago, in 1969.
And now the bay door to the one-bay garage won’t open. It’s thirty years later. Craig is with Jimmy Brand’s mother and just finding out that Jimmy Brand is coming back to town and the bay door is stuck. “His hand came away rust. 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.”
The band was called Life on Earth—classic rock ‘n’ roll. (At least, Life on Earth was one of their names.) “They had lasted one year, until graduation, when they flew apart like leaves in the wind.”
Craig had gone into the army and to Vietnam. Mason went to Minnesota for college. Frank had spent a year at school in Laramie before running the Sears Outlet. And Jimmy Brand had disappeared.
And now, in Return to Oakpine, the wind is blowing them back together.
In Ron Carlson’s three-dimensional, straightforward prose, this quartet of Wyoming men come back together with so much in common and so much that’s not. Does this sound like a recipe for sentiment? An opportunity for melodrama? If you know Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal and others) and his masterful way with words, you know he runs hard in the other direction.
For me, Ron Carlson writes like a calmed-down John Updike. He puts words together less like a fancy gymnast doing stylish gyrations and more like a veteran runner out for a cruise. “Three hours later, driving the late summer twilight, Mason could sense a fence along the old highway, a fence he knew, and then ruined tower of the abandoned wood water tank along the railroad tracks off to the right, so old now it wasn’t photographed anymore, an artifact he knew from fishing trips with his father when he was five and six; it told him when they were almost out of town. Now the prairie still glowed, and he could see the empty shacks popping up on each side of the highway, places so desolate it would be hard to last a season in any, and the creatures who had lived there had been gone longer than Mason, and then the failed equipment yards, the broken fences and derelict vehicles and trailers, welcome home, and the lights now ahead of his hometown twinkling feebly as if unsure they would last the night.”
The four men are gently contrasted. Two of the four chose to return early on in life to their hometown; two are returning now—years later. Craig has the hardware store, Frank owns a popular bar. Mason, a Denver lawyer, returns (in his Mercedes) to repair and sell his parents’ house. And Jimmy, a writer, comes home from New York City. He’s broke and dying of AIDS. The tragic death of Jimmy’s brother, Matt, haunts them all. The red boat is still sitting there to remind them of what happened at “the reservoir” (code for the incident itself) after graduation.
For all four, Oakpine tugs at their soul in different ways. The smells, the routines, the place where they first set life plans, the place where they chased each other on the football field and played music together way back when. Oakpine is part oasis, part sanctuary—and part wellspring for burdens and source of troubles past. Rebuilding and renewal sit side by side with deterioration and rust. Because so many seminal events took place in Oakpine, or just because so many seminal moments happen in high school, Oakpine is both “then” and “now,” deeply intertwined.
Return to Oakpine is about the impact these four characters have on each other and it’s also very much about the effect that Oakpine has on them. The town might serve as place where some lives unraveled, it can also serve as place to tie things back together, to make a new chapter in your life story.
Craig helps Mason with a renovation project and Carlson writes about their work with authority and detail (a familiar Carlson motif, construction). Jimmy teaches writing to a young girl, a local. The four plan a reunion of the band. Any sense of a plot takes distant second place to the utterly human interactions among these four men and a well-populated cast of characters including women such as Craig’s conflicted wife Marci, and the aforementioned “Mrs. Brand.” The story takes a few placid turns. Carlson resists any temptation at the cheap homily or neatly sliced-and-diced morality tale. Resolution for some, questions for others.
No Big Drama—only real life, real people, real wind, familiar scents and well-known haunts. Return to Oakpine rings as real as a hammer and nail.
“This place wants to get to me,” Mason tells the real estate agent Shirley. “How can it smell the same?”
“I know,” she said. “It’s your old hometown. It’s how a hometown works.”