Five Skies

Five Skies

3.2 4
by Ron Carlson

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Beloved story writer Ron Carlson's first novel in thirty years, Five Skies is the story of three men gathered high in the Rocky Mountains for a construction project that is to last the summer. Having participated in a spectacular betrayal in Los Angeles, the giant, silent Arthur Key drifts into work as a carpenter in southern Idaho. Here he is hired, along with the


Beloved story writer Ron Carlson's first novel in thirty years, Five Skies is the story of three men gathered high in the Rocky Mountains for a construction project that is to last the summer. Having participated in a spectacular betrayal in Los Angeles, the giant, silent Arthur Key drifts into work as a carpenter in southern Idaho. Here he is hired, along with the shiftless and charming Ronnie Panelli, to build a stunt ramp beside a cavernous void. The two will be led by Darwin Gallegos, the foreman of the local ranch who is filled with a primeval rage at God, at man, at life.

As they endeavor upon this simple, grand project, the three reveal themselves in cautiously resonant, profound ways. And in a voice of striking intimacy and grace, Carlson's novel reveals itself as a story of biblical, almost spiritual force. A bellwether return from one of our greatest craftsmen, Five Skies is sure to be one of the most praised and cherished novels of the year.

Editorial Reviews

After several acclaimed short story collections, Ron Carlson makes a welcome return to long fiction with this gorgeous, understated novel about a transformative friendship among three troubled men. Refugees from the painful past, a ranch foreman and two hired hands are drawn together one summer by a bizarre construction project in the Idaho Rockies -- a motorcycle stunt ramp for a spectacularly ill conceived feat of daredevilry. All three are hopelessly mired in their private sorrows; but as the months progress, they find solace in each other's company and self-worth in the standards of excellence they impose on a foolhardy "road to nowhere." Set against the vast, rugged landscape of the American West, this finely crafted story explores the healing power of hope and our overpowering need for human connection in a lonely world.
Tom Barbash
…beautiful and unnerving… Five Skies is like one of those heartbreaking Raymond Carver stories in which a luckless character catches a glimpse of something better, a small moment of rightness about the world, and, instead of cheering us, this glimmer of hope makes us even more anxious—because we know it can't possibly last.
—The New York Times
Washington Post
Carlson's style—low-key, deliberate, reminiscent of both early Hemingway and contemporary James Salter. . . . [Carlson] can turn even a shopping list into a poem.
A masterpiece . . . Carlson's novel is the distillation of reality that readers crave.
Michael Dirda
Ron Carlson's Five Skies is a novel about three damaged men who work together for a summer in Idaho building a ramp. This doesn't sound like much of a plot, I know. But if one invests any work -- building a ramp or writing a novel -- with sufficient attention, care and reverence, the result can be a kind of prayer. Certainly, the three racked souls of Five Skies are all in need of spiritual and emotional succor. Arthur Key is a middle-aged, self-taught engineer, guilt-ridden by a terrible mistake; Darwin Gallegos is a 60ish ranch foreman, broken-hearted and wounded by an irremediable loss; and Ronnie Panelli is a skinny 20-year-old kid, a thief and a runaway, who yearns for respect and love. The novel relates in part how these three grow into a kind of family, as they move toward tragedy and redemption.
— The Washington Post
Rick Bass
A beautiful novel, as unique and insular as the quiet and powerful landscape it inhabits, and as braided with hope and despair, and hope again, as are the lives of the three men at its center.
Mark Spragg
In Five Skies Ron Carlson has fashioned such a moving and elemental meditation on every man's struggle toward family, toward the embrace of his individual soul, that, by its end, I found my appreciation for both grief and redemption to be profoundly altered. Here is a fine and gracefully rendered novel. (Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life)
Antonya Nelson
Ron Carlson knows there's a hole in the middle of our lives, a chasm we can hardly imagine looking into. So when he sends three men out west to see what they can do about it, the reader must pay close attention. Five Skies is not only a deeply moving contemporary western masterpiece--it is also a philosophical query about what it means to be a grown man, a grown person. You must read this book because it's going to make a beautiful blockbuster film, and you're going to want to be able to claim that you read it first. (Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble)
Publishers Weekly

Two stoics and a teenage misanthrope are brought together in Idaho's Rocky Mountains to build a ramp to nowhere in Carlson's first novel in 25 years, a tour de force of grief, atonement and the cost of loyalty. Darwin Gallegos, spiritually bereft after the sudden death of his wife, is hired for one last job at Rio Difficulto, the sprawling ranch where he had lived and worked for years. The job: construct a motorcycle ramp that will launch a daredevil across a gorge (the event is to be taped and bring in a pile of money). Darwin hires for the job drifters Arthur Key, a large and quiet man hiding from his recent past, and Ronnie Panelli, a wiry teenager on the lam from minor criminal mischief. As the men work from late spring through summer, their wounds come slowly to light: the seething fury that took root in Darwin after his wife died; Arthur's career as the go-to Hollywood stunt engineer that he abandoned after betraying his guileless brother; and Ronnie's short lifetime of failure, atoned for as he learns the carpentry trade. Carlson writes with uncommon precision, and this return to long-form fiction after four well-received story collections is stunning. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Big Arthur Key, ace Hollywood stunt scene builder, drifts into Idaho, the better to hide from his past. He serves as mentor to 19-year-old Ronnie Panelli, who's making transitions from boy to man, from thief to carpenter. Together, they're hired by Darwin Gallegos, who is filled with rage at his wife's recent death in a fluke accident. Their project is to build a ramp for a daredevil motorcycle jump across a canyon. None of the men is particularly verbose, especially about his feelings, so Carlson's achievement here is to portray those feelings, and the men's growing friendship, in terms of jobs well done, tools competently handled, meals shared, lessons learned, and gorgeous landscapes. Carlson seems deliberately to avoid the more spectacular elements latent in his work, as he also does in his understated reading of his first novel in 25 years. This audiobook sneaks up on the listener, reminding us how rare is the book that describes men without recourse to violence, sex, or intoxication. A quiet gem; recommended for all libraries.
—John Hiett

Kirkus Reviews
An emotionally bleak novel by noted short-story writer Carlson (A Kind of Flying, 2003, etc.) develops a strong, touching bond among three male workers on an isolated building crew in the Idaho mountains. Three men of very different backgrounds end up working closely over a period of two months on a stunt-ramp construction project out in the wilds of the West: Darwin Gallegos, a widower and 40-year foreman at the Rio Difficulto ranch, is the project manager, who decides perhaps too impetuously to hire two laborers loitering in Pocatello, Idaho, and bring them west to the canyon river site outside the ranch. Arthur Key is hugely built, has considerable experience constructing movie sets in L.A. and is fleeing trouble back in California; his brother, Gary, a film stuntman, has been recently killed in an accident, leaving Key full of guilt for the affair he was conducting with Gary's wife and eager to take on any work that allows him to forget the tragedy. Ronnie Panelli is a hapless 19-year-old fresh out of juvenile jail for stealing cars, a former golf caddy who knows little about construction or roughing it and is constantly getting hurt. Gradually, the men warm to the rigors of the work and each finds his specialty-Darwin is the chef, Ronnie the carpenter and Arthur the canny figurer of plans. Ronnie's troubles include being punctured in the shoulder with a long splinter while they are setting telephone poles and embroiling himself romantically with a local girl. The townies from Mercy get wind of the crew's work and attempt to disrupt it. The increasing trust among the men engenders a heartfelt and healing friendship, especially for Arthur, whose filial protectiveness for Ronniereflects the way he once cared for his younger brother. Flashbacks fill in Arthur's affair with Gary's wife. The ending, however, is harsh and grim. A thinking man's novel, containing all the rugged elements of Western allure.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.58(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The first time Arthur Key saw the plateau at the far edge of the ranch called Rio Difficulto, he was lying in a sleeping bag in the frigid open air at dawn, or a little before it, in the deep gray light through which so many creatures jostled in the sage. He was a big man and had slept in rough sections, shouldering the oversize Coleman sleeping bag up over his right arm and then his left by turns. A screaming rabbit had woken him, the cries thin and shrill in their extremity sounding only like a woman to him, only like a crime. They beat into the fading darkness like a two-note whistle, then suddenly stopped, and Arthur Key lifted his head and scanned the area. At first he didn't know where he was, which rooming house, but he knew the low black line of the crenellated mountain horizon was a hundred miles distant. The large Ford flatbed—still loaded—was parked off in the sage, cocked unevenly because of their having let so much air out of the tires the night before. Beside it he could see a small open army surplus jeep with a winch on the front bumper, and behind that a pile of material, a stack of large lumber in stays, the small tractor, a blue portable john still in its rough wooden crate, the frost on everything silver in the new light. There was nothing else, no building, no tent, no small trailer across the work yard. He closed his eyes and smiled. Darwin had said room and board.

Arthur Key put his hand on his head and felt the frost in his hair. In the new silence, he could now hear another sound which at first he assumed to be some pressure in his head. Then as he yawned and cleared his ears he guessed it was the flat high harmonics of an intercontinental flight, San Francisco to Boston, but as the vibration persisted he sat up and listened again. There were fluctuations in it like those in human speech, and a rhythm as if a generator were running somewhere a half-mile away. He wanted it to be a generator, the gas-driven generator that would be running the galley trailer where coffee would be ready, hot coffee and absolutely anything else.

In the past six weeks, mornings had been kindest to him. He had saved himself for two things: waking and having some coffee, and then, of course, the day caught up with him and he put his head down and worked, whatever it was. He'd just finished two weeks in Pocatello working cement on the foundations for new storage units. He told himself he was trying to regroup, to get a grip, but he now knew, after this time away from the life he had ruined, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.

The sound wasn't a generator and it wasn't people talking. When he stood, he knew it was at some distance a river, and as he walked toward it and saw clearly the mortifying fissure through which such a vast river ran, the geology of the entire plateau settled in his mind as an entity, a huge primitive place that few men had seen. He went to the edge of the sandstone gorge and looked down. In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders. Here the sound was terrific, magnified, real. It sucked the air away and drew you toward it. Key measured up the river, estimating the vertical canyon at fifteen hundred feet. He couldn't sense the width. Below him as his dizziness abated he saw a shadow sweep and then an osprey rose into his face, a small cutthroat trout in one talon. Across the chasm the first sunlight clipped the western echelon of ruined mountains and cones of the badland volcanoes at the edge of the world, and they were gray and red and gold in the moment. Two low spires of smoke smudged the sky far away; it would be early in the year for such fires.

Key heard a sharp painful sigh and turned to see a figure moving on the ranch road, a thin man whose shadow in the new sun cut a hundred yards toward the canyon. It was the kid, Ronnie. He was walking away in the barren place and then Arthur Key saw the man begin to run in the cold, a stride purposeful and beautiful at once. Key folded his arms and watched until the shadow streamed slowly south and disappeared.

Darwin, still in his sleeping bag, had watched the young man move to the gate and run away. He'd already seen the big man, Arthur, move to the canyon edge. The sun was up now, but it was not warmer, and the frost filled every shadow and coated the glass of the two vehicles. He crawled out of his sleeping bag and laced up his boots and put on his jacket. He was unfolding the metal stove table and opening the stove when the big man, Arthur Key, came back from his tour.

"Where'd Ronnie go?"

Darwin was a little sick now that he realized he'd made a mistake by hiring these two. He'd been desperate—it had been late in the day and the country was full of men who couldn't work, wouldn't work, and they were hard to get rid of. Just driving back to Pocatello would cost him more than a day. He'd been tired and he was fooled by the big man's size, he knew now. Darwin lit the propane and set the coffeepot on the burner while he pulled the heavy cast-iron frying pan from the cookbox. In forty years at the ranch he'd hired maybe six bad apples, and now for the first time on his own he'd started with an error.

Meet the Author

Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of four story collections and four novels, most recently Five Skies. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, and GQ, and has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts as well as in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His novella, “Beanball,” was recently selected for Best American Mystery Stories. He is the director of the UC Irvine writing program and lives in Huntington Beach, California.

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