Five Skies

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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 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...

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Five Skies

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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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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

Library Journal
Three troubled men unfold their sorrows as they work one summer at a construction project in the Rockies. The celebrated short story writer's first full-length fiction in three decades; with a four-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143113461
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/29/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 576,527
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.58 (d)

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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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.

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Reading Group Guide


In his first novel in twenty-five years, Ron Carlson tells the story of three men—each locked in his own isolation, each trying to escape a painful past—who come together for a strange job: to build a stunt ramp in the “ruined mountains” seventeen miles south of Mercy, Idaho. On the surface, it is a simple story, marked by the formal tightness and emotional subtlety that have long characterized Carlson’s fiction. But the novel’s depths reach to the very heart of human suffering, ultimately revealing the healing power of work done well and the redemption that can be found in telling one’s story. In prose that is lyrical, precise, and deeply attuned to the fluctuations of the human spirit, Five Skies offers readers an extended meditation on the relationship between past and present, grief and the unburdening of grief, self-concealment and self-revelation.

When hiring Art Key and Ronnie Panelli, Darwin Gallegos senses that things are “all wrong.” He can tell from Ronnie’s jittery gaze that he’s been in jail and senses that Key has been damaged in some deep, essential way. But Darwin’s in a hurry and hires them anyway. On the drive up to the job site, they spin off a snow-covered mountain road, and this accident, which could easily have been disastrous, sets the tone of impending tragedy that haunts the novel. The site, Darwin notes, is a “nice place,” prompting Key to respond, “beautiful. . . . We’ll fix that,” for the ramp—and the motorcycle jump across the gorge for which the ramp is being built—makes clear the sacrifice of the beauty and wildness of the American West to greed and spectacle and high-risk recklessness. In fact, Key is appalled by the job because of what it is and because of the memories it evokes of a tragedy in his own past, but he decides he would “just do it as a job, not get involved in anything else.”

But not getting involved proves to be impossible as Key is drawn into the lives of Darwin and Ronnie—and brought closer to his own grief and guilt. Ronnie is running from the law, from a painful family life, and from his past as a petty shoplifter and unsuccessful thief. Darwin is haunted by the sudden and inconsolable death of his wife several years before. Each of them has been set adrift by a pain they are trying to escape. But in the shared pride of doing a job right, even if it is a bad job, they establish a kind of stoic intimacy and gradually reveal themselves to each other, a fact that in the end allows a kind of redemption—and makes its terribly high cost painfully clear.

Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of four story collections, including At the Jim Bridger and The Hotel Eden, two novels, and a young adult novel. His stories appear regularly in Harper’s, The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Playboy, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the director of the graduate fiction program at the University of California, Irvine.


Q. This is your first novel in twenty-five years. Why did you wait so long?

A. I wasn’t waiting really. I’ve been writing stories steadily and they ranged widely, serious to comic, and then some years ago I imagined a scene on a high desert river gorge with two men talking about work, the things they had made that had lasted, and I saw that to treat them, I would need a larger form. I would need to tell of an entire summer and that would require a novel.

Q. What challenges does the novel form present for you?

A. The opportunities in a novel are so different from those in a story. The world is larger and requires patience in every way. The writing isn’t full of sudden surprises, but discoveries that evolve credibly over time. The changes accrue steadily and you have to live in them as the wear and the tear and the real lessons gather. It is such a different pleasure from those in writing the sharp surprises that appear in many stories. The light doesn’t flash or surprise you but it breaks evenly and surely. I loved being in the world with these men for that longer season.

Q. Characters like Key, Darwin, and Ronnie are becoming increasingly rare in American fiction. What draws you to write about such men?

A. I wanted these to be simple men, each hauling his life forward as well as he could. They have been reduced by their histories, and they are weary or incapable of subterfuge. Sometimes, all you’ve got is the day, and I tried to use the days of their time together to test them, to see how they might emerge.

Q. What interests you about the kind of work you describe in the novel? Do you see parallels between the pride and care someone like Arthur Key takes in his work and your own work as a writer?

A. I’m not sure. I worked as carefully on this book as on any project I’ve had in my hands, and I measured twice before cutting once. (But I did cut more than once.) I like Arthur Key, his care, his understanding of materials and design, and his hesitance to be rash or hurried.

Q. Have you done the kind of work you describe so precisely in the novel? Did you do much research for Five Skies?

A. My father was a very fine craftsman and engineer, and I saw him every day admire the problems before him and approach them with the best design and the proper tools. We talked all the time about these things and he told me about the famous accidents in building design, bridges and hotel balconies. His drawings were beautiful. He gave me the equation about a motorcycle’s trajectory over a river gorge in a wonderful sketch. I still have it. My two brothers and I are fairly handy, though they are better at such things than I.

Q. Why is talking—telling one’s story—so important in Five Skies, for all the main characters, but especially for Arthur Key?

A. It is hard to talk, to build a sure story, something true that actually helps the current moment. We have things welded into our hearts that seem they will never open, and Arthur Key knows that he needs to tell his story; it is the only method forward. And he knows he will need new muscles to approach this important task.

Q. Art Key and Darwin Gallegos are pretty evocative names. How—and why—did you choose them?

A. I started with them and there was no other choice. I did know a fine man named Darwin a long time ago. I consider them real names. I was not trying for anything symbolic, any more than all of our names are.

Q. Will you return to writing stories now or are you at work on another novel? What’s next for you?

A. I am finishing another novel right now. It has my attention in the way I’d hoped. Since finishing Five Skies I have written a number of stories and I’m sure there are more ahead, but the long form has sort of swept me away, and I’m happily taken.


  • Why has Ron Carlson titled the novel Five Skies? Why does Arthur Key tell Harry, when he asks what it’s like in Idaho, “There’s five skies, Harry. . . . There’s five skies every day” (p. 236)?
  • SPOILER ALERT: At the beginning of the job, Arthur tells Darwin that the plans “are wrong from top to bottom. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, somebody’s going to get killed out here. . . . Right here. That’s all this means” (p. 20). Why does Key feel so strongly that someone will be killed here? Is Ronnie’s death in some sense fated? Is his death sacrificial?
  • When Key tells Ronnie “We’ll have a little supper here and then find [Traci] so you can give her your note, and we’ll go back to camp and work another week,” the narrator comments that “the sentence sounded like good work itself, sane and filled with promise” (p. 150). What is it about “good work,” a job done right, that is so satisfying in the novel? In what ways is work “sane and full of promise” for Ronnie, Darwin, and Key? What does it give them? In what ways is the novel itself both a story about and an embodiment of “good work”?
  • Why is it so difficult for Arthur to tell his story? Why does he feel “simplified and quiet” (p. 194) after he finally does tell it to Darwin?
  • How do each of the main characters—Key, Darwin, and Ronnie—change over the course of the novel? In what subtle ways do they help one another ?
  • Why do Key, Darwin, and Ronnie find it so difficult to talk about the pain in their pasts? What do they fear? How is each of them transformed when they are able to talk about their pasts?
  • SPOILER ALERT: After Key burns down the ramp that they’ve spent all summer building, Darwin asks him, “What did you do?” Key replies: “Woke up” (p. 238). What does he mean by this? What kind of awakening has he experienced? In what sense was he asleep, or dreaming, before this moment? How are we to understand Key’s waking in relation to Darwin’s statement, farther down the same page, that Ronnie “didn’t wake up”?
  • Does Arthur Key attain a kind of redemption at the end of the novel? Has he forgiven himself for his brother’s death and his own adultery?
  • SPOILER ALERT: When the promoters say that the jump will happen “barring an act of God,” Key says, “He doesn’t act out here. It’s just us” (p. 188). Yet when he burns down the stunt ramp, Key thinks to himself that “this was already an act of God, regardless of the weather” (p. 233). How are we to understand these two statements? How do Darwin and Key feel about God?
  • What does Five Skies as a whole suggest about the relationship among grief, memory, work, talk, and friendship?
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Customer Reviews

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