Return to Oakpine: A Novel

( 4 )


From a widely admired author, a poignant novel about homecoming, friendship, growing up, and growing old for fans of Richard Ford and Richard Russo

In this finely wrought portrait of western American life, Ron Carlson takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, and into the lives of four men trying to make peace with who they are in the world.

In high school, these men were in a band. One of them, Jimmy, left Oakpine for New York City after...

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From a widely admired author, a poignant novel about homecoming, friendship, growing up, and growing old for fans of Richard Ford and Richard Russo

In this finely wrought portrait of western American life, Ron Carlson takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, and into the lives of four men trying to make peace with who they are in the world.

In high school, these men were in a band. One of them, Jimmy, left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother. A successful novelist, he has returned thirty years later, in 1999—because he is dying.
With Carlson’s characteristic grace, we learn what has become of these friends and the different directions of their lives. Craig and Frank never left; Mason, a top lawyer in Denver, is back in town to fix up and sell his parents’ house. Now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most important thing they can do.

Return to Oakpine
is a generous, tender look at friendship, family, and the roads not taken, by a writer at the peak of his craft.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Deb Olin Unferth
"It was so close to being enough," Craig's wife thinks to herself while counting up all the good things in her life. Herein lies the book's beauty. The men and their tender, disgruntled families get almost enough to sustain them, but not quite enough to calm the inner cry. These characters will stay with you because this is how we are too. Almost enough: it's the best we can hope for, it's the definition of happiness. What we do with the inevitable residual longing—write books, join bands, play sports, have affairs, divorce, build, leave, strive, die—is our story. Return to Oakpine is not going to change your mind about anything, but it will be gentle with you, keep you safe, as you maneuver through your own dark, muddy, genuine, decidedly non-1950s world.
Publishers Weekly
The smalltown homecoming featured in the fourth novel from Carlson (The Signal) proves a bittersweet and nostalgic one. Jimmy Brand, following a 30-year absence from his hometown and a successful career in New York City as a novelist, returns to Oakpine, Wyo., in 1999, broke and deathly ill from AIDS. His father Edgar, still wrongly blaming Jimmy for his oldest son Matt’s fatal boating accident and struggling to accept Jimmy’s homosexuality, banishes him to the family’s garage-converted apartment. Jimmy’s old friend Craig Ralston, the town hardware store owner, comes by with his teenage son, Larry, to fix up the garage, sparking Craig’s fond memories of their high school band, Life on Earth. Craig, along with fellow bandmates Mason Kirby, who left Oakpine to pursue a lucrative law career in Denver, and Frank Gunderson, a local bar owner, decide to resurrect Life on Earth, a welcomed diversion from their divorces and unsatisfying jobs, while Jimmy seeks to repair the long-term rift with his father. Carlson warmly evokes smalltown life, such as when he describes Larry’s senior high school prom, and this sometimes-melancholy tale reaches a satisfying conclusion with the reunited rock group’s entry into a local battle-of-the-bands contest. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt and Hochman. (July)
From the Publisher
"A love story and a wilderness adventure that mount to a climax of shocking, and satisfying, violence."
Los Angeles Times

"Carlson never drops an extra word or a false phrase, even as The Signal accelerates like an avalanche...If men can't be brought back to fiction by books as fine as this one, it's their own damn fault."
The Washington Post

"Powerful...a bittersweet love story and a rousing adventure."
The Miami Herald

"Read Ron Carlson's latest, The Signal, and you'll be convinced that the answer to your worries resides in the woods, in getting back to basics....It's a sweet, tidy little book about a broken rancher. And yet it won't just help you pass the time, it will help you out." — Esquire

"Long revered as a master of the short story, Carlson has a talent for describing landscape (both internal and external), and that translates here intact. At fewer than two hundred pages, it's beach ready, too."

"Ron Carlson is probably the best American writer you've never heard of."
The Daily Beast

"Uncommonly fine...Carlson's writing is crisp and blunt, much like the very Wyoming landscape he describes. The Signal is about small, tight things that widen out into immensities. it is about love and regret and the pain of loss and the wild parts of Wyoming." — Chicago Tribune

Praise for Five Skies:

"A life-changing work of fiction."

Los Angeles Times

"Carlson's style—low-key, deliberate, reminiscient of both early Hemingway and contemporay James Salter...can turn even a shopping list into a poem."

The Washington Post

"A masterpiece."
The Atlantic

"Ron Carlson's beautifully crafted and emotionally wrenching novel about nonverbal but deep-feeling males in flyover country is more refreshing than an ice-cold Coors." — Entertainment Weekly

Praise for Return to Oakpine

“Carlson’s new novel, with its themes of male friendship and second chances, hoes much the same furrow as his lovely previous books Five Skies and The Signal… Carlson’s crafted an emotive yet pellucid prose style that conveys the profound spiritual satisfactions of homecoming.”—The Wall Street Journal
“As stirring and memorable and utterly rejuvenating a novel as you’ll read…Carlson infuses these pages with such conviction, such perfectly orchestrated pathos…the book is as lean and structured as a sonnet, and it has a split-focus climax as sharp as an ax.”—The Washington Post
“In this new book of his, Ron Carlson has done a splendid job of making a reader feel at home in Oakpine…Carlson can sometime sound the music of the entire novel in a single sentence.”—Alan Cheuse, “All Things Considered,”National Public Radio

“Engaging…These men and their tender, disgruntled families get almost enough to sustain them, but not quite enough to calm the inner cry.  These characters will stay with you because this is how we are too.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[An] eloquent and moving novel…the tension that drives Return to Oakpine [is] between what we want to do and what we need to do, between our dreams and our responsibilities.”—Los Angeles Times
“In this novel by an American master, four middle-aged friends, once members of the same high school band, reunite in their Wyoming hometown thirty years later, reconciling the people they’ve become with the kids they used to be.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Carlson excels in small-town Western Americana, in both embracing and interrogating nostalgia in quiet, controlled prose…a humane portrait of the lives we lead and leave behind, peeling back nostalgia’s gold veneer with grace, empathy, and a pragmatic sense of optimism.”—Kansas City Star

Library Journal
An award-winning short story writer of decades' standing, Carlson here turns to long-form fiction, as he has been doing recently with works like Five Skies and The Signal. In 1999, four friends who once played in a high school band reunite in their hometown, Oakpine, WY—Craig and Frank never left, Mason is back from Denver to sell his parents' home, and Jimmy, who had gone to New York and become a famous novelist, has returned because he is dying. For readers who like thoughtful.
Kirkus Reviews
Carlson's fifth novel, in which two native sons return after a long absence. Back in 1969, high school senior Jimmy Brand rounded up three other seniors to form a garage band. The four guys savored their first assertion of independence, a taste of glory, but it all went to hell at the end of the school year. Jimmy's big brother Matt, football hero and toast of the town, got stinking drunk; out alone on the reservoir in his father's boat, he ended up cut to pieces. A devastated Jimmy left town right after the accident. Now it's 30 years later, and Jimmy, a gay New York writer stricken by AIDS, has come home to die. While his mom is tenderly welcoming, his dad doesn't want him in the house, so Jimmy bunks in the garage, their old rehearsal space. This is the story of that once tightknit group. The erstwhile drummer, Mason, a successful lawyer with his own firm in Denver, has returned to sell his childhood home. The visit leads to soul-searching by this unhappy, driven man. He feels better refurbishing his house; he's joined by Craig, the hardware store owner, who'd rather spackle and paint than make nice to his customers. The pleasure of physical exertion is a major theme. The fourth member of the quartet, saloon owner Frank, rejuvenated by his second marriage, has no worries. Also featured prominently are Craig's 17-year-old son, Larry, who loves his town but is ready to move on, and his wife, Marci, tempted to leave him for her boss. Jimmy has just enough strength to help Larry's eventual girlfriend find her identity through her story writing and to sing along with the guys, who have re-formed the band and entered a talent contest. Sentimentality is the obvious trap, but Carlson avoids it. More problematic is the way that the reservoir accident remains unfinished business after 30 years. Carlson's book affectionately captures the rhythms of small-town life. It's an understated work, spread a little too thin.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125594
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 343,313
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Carlson is the author of five story collections and four novels, including The Signal and Five Skies. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, GQ, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and lives in Huntington Beach, California.

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Read an Excerpt


The Run

The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help. There was a time when Louise would have tackled this whole project alone, but now it was too much and it had come up too soon. She called Craig at his hardware store downtown, and he came out one night after work. It was August. All the cottonwoods in his old neighborhood, pretty as a park so long ago, were now towering giants, clustering leafy cumulous that shaded the district and sounded like a river in the wind. They had split the sidewalks and dwarfed the old bungalows, half of which were still occupied by their original owners. The trees were the theme here, and Craig, who was happy for his move to the scrub oak mountain and the new mansion, felt them get to him as he went to her little porch. When he knocked, she didn’t invite him in but came outside and took him around to the garage. It was a classic one-bay garage that her husband had erected with community help years ago, 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 place was the old band to Craig, the room where he and Jimmy Brand and Frank Gunderson and Mason Kirby, who had lived three houses down, had practiced a hundred afternoons that fall. The little building hadn’t been opened for ten or twelve years, maybe longer.

Craig Ralston had been a big kid, and he had played football with Louise’s older son, Matt, who was long dead, and now Craig was a big man, square and strong, and though he was out of shape, there was something youthful about him. He still had all his curly hair and he spent his days hustling about the little hardware store, in which he knew where every hinge, every bolt, every flange lay, fetching things for people and kidding with them. There had been some talk years before, during the oil boom, about him starting his own construction business, but when his father nixed the plan, Craig came into the store. Building his house on the hill over the last year, though, had rocked Craig soundly; he loved such labor, and though he had stretched the work on his own house out as far as he could, he had finally poured the driveway last month and trenched the yard with a sprinkler system and sodded the lawns.

“What’s the program, Mrs. Brand?”

“Can you open this door Craig? I’ve got a job for you.”

Craig lifted and turned the old T-handle, but the bay door stuck. His hand came away rusty. 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.

Craig Ralston had eaten a lot of meals in her kitchen, hanging out with Jimmy. The fall of 1969, their senior year, she would feed the band after they’d practiced in Mr. Brand’s garage. Edgar Brand told the kids he’d park his Chevy pickup, the one he drove to his job at Union Pacific, on the driveway, “My beautiful vehicle will be out in the weather, boys, for the sake of the musical arts.” The driveways up and down the street were two strips of poured concrete with a run of grass between them. In those days Craig could see Mr. Brand in the living room reading the paper and watching television while he and Jimmy and Mason and Frank ate hamburger steaks and sliced tomatoes and huge chunks of steaming squash covered with salt and pepper and melting butter. They had been Life on Earth, classic rock ’n’ roll, and they had lasted one year, until graduation, when they flew apart like leaves in the wind. Craig Ralston went into the army and Vietnam with two dozen other kids from that class from Oakpine, and Mason went up to Minnesota for college, and Frank had spent a year at school at Laramie before returning and managing the Sears Outlet downtown and then buying the building. Jimmy Brand disappeared. Craig and Mason were home one Christmas, and Mason had gotten a card; Jimmy was in out in the world, having left Wyoming for good.

Until now.

Mrs. Brand backed away from the building as if realizing its size and the dirty window had defeated her. She was wearing a faded blue-plaid apron—Craig noted it as something he’d known from the past— and he saw that she was going to put her hands in it and give up.

“I’m glad you called,” Craig told her. “You caught me daydreaming at the store.”

“No, you weren’t. Your father ran a good store, and so do you.”

“It looks like we’ll survive until they put in a Walmart, so that’s something. I finished that house, you know, Marci’s dream house on the hill—our dream house. I’m one of those characters who lives on the hill. You’ll have to come by.”

“Remember when that hill was the wilderness? I think the boys used to hunt right there—I can see the lights some nights,” Mrs. Brand said. “This town is changing, but you’re not one of the guys who live on the hill. They’re all from California, aren’t they?”

“Or Idaho. I’m glad Jimmy’s coming back. He got out and did something. Those books. He’s the only guy from Oakpine to write a book.”

“Is Marci at the museum?” “She is. She’s doing what she wants now. Larry’s a senior. You’ll see him.”

“My god,” she said. “Those babies.” She stood stiffly, having said all that she could manage, and she looked past Craig at the impossible garage, her eyes heavy now and laden with sadness and the weariness of all of time and time’s sadness.

“Mrs. Brand,” Craig started, “we all go way back. And Marci and I have that big house, and with Jimmy coming—” “Don’t, Craig,” the woman said. She put her hand on his forearm. “We have to do it this way.” She was looking at his face now. “Just tell me what we need, Mrs. Brand. I’ll get Larry, and we’ll get this done for you.”

A week later Larry Ralston came walking up the smooth driveway of the new house on the scrub oak hill, the house they’d just moved into last spring, taking those long rolling strides he took after a run, his hands on his hips, each breath three gallons of September, still a touch of summer in it, and he was smiling and shaking-his-head happy. He and his father had poured the cement for this concrete surface six weeks ago, and now he walked in a circle on the ramp “I ran around the town,” he said. Larry Ralston was seventeen and had been talking to himself for two or three months. “That town is captured in its entirety.” He turned in the new night and looked out over the dark world and the small pool of the sparkling network of lights of the town, and the knotted cluster of downtown Oakpine and the white halogen slash of the railroad, and beyond the dark pool to the colored lights in a distant grid, red and red, at the airport. It was the first time he’d run around the town, and he ran again now up the steps sweating and smelling the fall grass in the sod and the newness of the materials cut just this year, and it was funny not to tramp sawdust, as they’d done for weeks, into the kitchen.

There his mother stood now in her black bra, which was her nighttime ritual, doing the dishes in her underwear, her hair tied back in a ribbon, something she’d never done until this year, and it was almost seven. She said, “Where have you been?” thinking he’d been catting around, that age: seventeen, because it was what she was doing or about to do or considering doing or played at, and her thinking was that if her life had turned that way, then she saw it in everyone, even Larry, shining and breathing, and saying now, “I ran around this entire town.” He wanted a glass of water but didn’t want to get near her at the sink. “Mom, summer’s over, grab a shirt.”

She said the obvious thing: “It’s my house.”

And he, still having an ounce of humor about this woman and her black bra season, called out to the living room: “Dad, what is this with Mom?”

“Play through, Larry,” his father called.

“It’s a sports bra,” she said. “It’s a bathing suit, for Pete’s sake.”

“That’s worse,” he said. “They are all sports bras.” And he called to Craig Ralston, his father, “Are you dressed, at least?”

“I’m dressed,” she said. “Get used to it.”

“You going to get a tattoo?” he said. “I’m sorry for asking, because your son is not a smartass but is dislocated by your behavior, but what’s the answer: is a tattoo next?”

“What makes you think I don’t have one?”

“Oh my god. Dad?”

“I’m saying: play through. Where have you been?”

His mother turned to him and said quietly, “This is my house. This is not indecent. Where have you been?” She turned, not waiting for an answer, throwing her hands out at him as if tossing a towel, and left the room. She’d been walking like an athlete for months now, long decisive steps. Larry felt an electric bite run across his gut, and he sat suddenly on the kitchen chair, his legs now rubber, paper, ash. He felt the day put its hard hands on his shoulders.

“I ran around the town,” he said to the empty kitchen. The empty modern kitchen, the block kitchen island. It had been his mother, Marci, in the car tonight. He seized his knowing and boxed it and set it in his gut and stood up. He put his hand on his stomach. Maybe it was. But he had it boxed and set now, and his legs were back. Again now louder he called to where his father sat with the television: “Is the airport in Oakpine, Dad?”

“Of course it is. It’s the Oakpine airport.”

Larry found his burger under the bun in the cast iron frying pan on the stove and scooped it up with his left hand, dripping grease along his palm, which he licked away while opening the fridge with his right hand and grabbing the glass bottle of milk, half full, setting it down to pull the top off, and lifting it in a long cold drink.

“I mean in the town proper. City limits.”

“It’s in the county. The highway is the county line. Route thirty-one.”

“Then I ran around the whole town.” He was talking with his mouth full, and he walked to the living room entry and dropped his shoulder against the wall there and continued eating. They were building an ice mansion on the History Channel.

“Look at this, Larry: wiring and everything.”

“How’s your project with Mrs. Brand?”

“Fabulous. I need you tomorrow after school.”

“I’ve got football, but I can come on Saturday.” He watched his father watch one of the men set the keystone ice block into the entry arch of their cold palace. His partner followed with a splash of water from a bucket, sealing the deal. His father, the hardware store owner, should have been the captain of builders. They’d had a crazy summer finishing this house, and Larry could not remember his father happier.

“Don’t get any ideas from these actors,” Larry said. “Such a gimmick. Ice walls. They’re doing it to avoid that fiberfill insulation, for which I don’t blame them. That stuff itches, but you stick with drywall or whatever. They’ll put an ice house on TV, but it’s crazy. It’s a stunt, cool, but a stunt. It would be better TV to show us installing that garage door.” Yesterday they’d fought the two steel L-trolleys for the door’s rollers, adjusting each side for an hour.

“Where were you?”

“I ran around this town, Dad. I’m not saying it should be on the History Channel, though I’m sure I startled some ghosts and ran by the forgotten sites of four hundred short-lived romances, but I know it’s a first, and I know it’s a record. You could have done it in the day you and your buddies played that championship season, which I think was 1970 or so because the town was only Hackamore Flats and downtown, but it’s different now.” Larry finished the last bites of his hamburger and pulled his shirt over his head and wiped his face with it.

“These days such a venture is an hour and nineteen minutes running all the way, including a loop out around the silos and two crossings of the Union Pacific tracks at First Street, cornering at the old Trail’s End Motel, may it rest in peace, and back again over the trestle at the river.”

Craig Ralston regarded his son in the dark doorway. “Fall of 1969. We won every game, and Frank broke his leg. And you ran all of this because . . .? ”

Larry stood from leaning against the wall and held out his hands, which were suddenly this year huge. “Because I’m alive, Father.” He turned and went up to his room on the thick stairway carpet, now hearing the thump thump of music coming from the huge bedroom wing, his mother suddenly playing music too loud everywhere, and he called once more: “I’m alive!”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 1, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Thought Provoking Read

    When I began RETURN TO OAKPINE, I didn’t think I was going to like it after all and wasn’t sure I could even finish it. Within a few pages, however, I was pulled into Oakpine and had to know it’s people and their secrets. The story unfolded layer by layer as the present mingled with thoughts of the past and what might have been. The story is about four men trying to figure out who they are and what they’re doing 30 years after their graduation. Days after his graduation, Jimmy Brand left the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, for New York City. He became a successful writer and never looked back. He hasn’t been home once in 30 years until now. Jimmy is coming home to die. While his mother is delighted to see him, his father won’t even allow him in the house. He has to stay in the garage in a room his mother had fixed for him. As plans are made for Jimmy’s homecoming, his friends begin to remember. There once was a band consisting of four good friends. But each went their separate way and the music stopped for all of them. Craig Ralston remained in town, gave up on a career in construction and took over the family hardware store. He married his high school sweetheart, but life is not as good as it looks. Frank Gunderson stayed in town too. Now he owns and operates a bar. He has regrets that he never left to make something of himself. Mason Kirby left for Denver and became a successful lawyer. He returns to Oakpine to sell his parent’s old home and realizes he hasn’t enjoyed living in a long time. The group decides they need to get the band back together one last time for all their sake. RETURN TO OAKPINE is about the decisions we make and the effects they have on our lives. It’s about friendships, family, and living in a small town. It deals with hopes and dreams and the reality of growing up and losing who you want to be. Author Ron Carlson has created memorable characters that will tug on your heartstrings. He writes in a manner that pulls you in and holds you captivate until the very end. He combines humor, sadness, dreams and reality for a well-balanced tale of American life. His style will bring you to tears and fill you with laughter. If you’ve ever wondered about a different path not taken, RETURN TO OAKPINE is a must read. FTC Full Disclosure - This book was sent to me by the publisher in hopes I would review it. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2014

    I read very few books that center around male characters, so whe

    I read very few books that center around male characters, so when I was offered this book I jumped at the chance to read something outside of my normal reading.  A group of four boys formed a band in high school and had quite the senior year, but after graduation, one leaves to not return in 30 years, two stay and one has returned a few times, but is back for good now.  As they all come back to their small hometown, the memories from the past are creeping up, but they are also learning about what happened in the in between.

    It took a moment to learn each of the personalities of each of the men, but once I made a quick chart, I had it down and loved reading about their interactions.  It was interesting to read about how their group formed and then to see them reconnect and see how their lives apart had changed each of them.  The other part that really had me connect with these characters and fall in love with them was seeing the next generation emerge.  I would love to read a sequel that focuses on this up and coming generation in the small town. 

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  • Posted August 31, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    3.5 Stars 'Return to Oakpine' is a contemporary adult novel tha

    3.5 Stars

    'Return to Oakpine' is a contemporary adult novel that brings to life American life in the west in the setting of a small town called Oakpine, Wyoming. The novel focuses on four men and their friendship that has lasted for longer than they can remember. Each of them has grown up and continue to search for meaning in their lives, along with where they truly belong. The friends reunite when one of the four - Jimmy - returns to Oakpine several years after leaving because he has learned that he's dying and wants to reconnect with his old friends. Throughout the novel we get to read about each of the four friends - how their lives have turned out and how different they are from when they were in school together. We learn that they were in a band together in high school, and now that they have all returned to Oakpine, reuniting the band might just be the most important thing they can do. The story is an interesting and mostly original one. The characters were all well written and I enjoyed reading about their past when they were in school together as well as how each of their lives went after graduation. Their friendship is a very important aspect of the novel, along with other deep topics like family, grief, self discovery, and imagining what might have been. It's told with a natural pace and easy dialogue which made it a pretty quick read. Although the writing and parts of the story didn't get me fully engaged with the book or some of the characters, it was still an intriguing look into the lives of four men and the power of the friendship that they share. Recommended for fans of adult contemporary fiction who enjoy heartfelt stories of friendship and family.

    Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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    Posted August 11, 2013

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