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Ron Carlson has always been a critics’ favorite, but Return to Oakpine shows the acclaimed writer at his finest. In this tender and nostalgic portrait of western American life, Carlson tells the story of four middle-aged friends who once played in a band while growing up together in small-town Wyoming. One of them, Jimmy Brand, left for New York City and became an admired ...
Ron Carlson has always been a critics’ favorite, but Return to Oakpine shows the acclaimed writer at his finest. In this tender and nostalgic portrait of western American life, Carlson tells the story of four middle-aged friends who once played in a band while growing up together in small-town Wyoming. One of them, Jimmy Brand, left for New York City and became an admired novelist. Thirty years later in 1999, he’s returned to die. Craig Ralston and Frank Gunderson never left Oakpine; Mason Kirby, a Denver lawyer, is back on family business. Jimmy’s arrival sends the other men’s dreams and expectations, realized and deferred, whirling to the surface. And now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most essential thing they ever do.
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.
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!”
Posted August 1, 2013
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.
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Posted August 31, 2013
'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.
Posted August 11, 2013
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