In small-town America, high school is king. Ron Carlson’s sixth novel, “Return to Oakpine,” follows a Wyoming town’s aging residents bent on reliving the glory days of senior year and the summer of ‘69, of first kisses, flat beer and amateur rock ‘n’ roll.
Like “The Signal,” his previous book, “Return to Oakpine” is concerned with the culture and landscape of the American West. With Carlson’s typical grace and unadorned prose, his latest novel deals in the prodigal sons and promising footballers of Oakpine, a small town that seems to hold optimism only for its youth.
The novel catches up with four friends and former members of a garage rock band called Life on Earth in 1999, 30 years after their final show and high school graduation. Two stayed behind in Oakpine: Frank Gunderson, a homebrewer and bar owner, and Craig Ralston, a family man and hardware store manager. Two left: Mason Kirby, now a Denver lawyer, and Jimmy Brand, a successful writer and New York theatre critic who repurposes high school hurts in his novels.
Jimmy returns to town for the first time since the tragic death of his older brother, Matt, in a boating accident 30 years earlier. He isn’t home for a visit — he’s there to die. Wasting away from the AIDS virus that claimed his partner, he decides to spend his final days in Oakpine after finding himself without money and friends in the Big Apple.
His arrival proves divisive: Jimmy’s father, still reeling from Jimmy’s abandonment and homosexuality, refuses to let him in the house or speak to him. Some hurts, Carlson reminds us, don’t easily heal. Jimmy spends his remaining days in the Brands’ garage, entertained by a rotating cast of old high school friends and their high school-age offspring.
Among them is Craig Ralston and his football star son, Larry. Craig runs the local hardware store but would rather work construction. He helps Jimmy’s mother convert the garage into Jimmy’s deathbed, relishing in the simple, tactile work he can do, stapling up neat plastic sheeting or hammering bathroom tile until the seams disappear.
When Mason returns to town after a messy divorce, he joins in as well, feeling pulled toward the same kind of project. In construction, the two can control and shape something meaningful.
Carlson knits these multiple voices and perspectives together to capture the magnetic, sometimes damaging pull of hometowns and the memories of invincible youth that can never be restored. These aren’t backwoods hicks or benighted gossips: Carlson’s characters are self-aware to a fault, articulating buried desires and personal pitfalls so plainly, the dialogue often takes on a confessional tone.
“I’ve always only done one thing,” Mason laments. “Drive hard for the hoop. And the lesson is that I never really understood the game.”
Other characters, like high school prodigy Larry, bewitch us with aching sincerity and the complex confusion of personalities in flux. Larry begins the novel in love with his own vitality: He runs a circle around the entire town just to prove he can, gulping down optimism, “each breath three gallons of September.” As Jimmy’s health worsens, Larry revels in the exhilarating rush of being young and strong, giving himself pep talks as he runs and cracking jokes that only he can hear.
At Jimmy’s behest, the band reunites for one final gig: a Battle of the Bands competition that tests their memory of old Beach Boys chords. Jimmy falters, too weak to join his friends on their farewell tour, and Larry takes Jimmy’s place as frontman. In doing so, he serves up a bittersweet reminder to the four men of the zeal they once had, back when their futures, like Larry’s, seemed infinite and unassailably bright, before Matt’s death changed the course of their lives so completely.
Each masculine perspective seems so rich and fully rendered that the lackluster female cast proves disappointing. Craig’s wife, Marci, is a less surprising, less tender archetype of a woman who just wants to be wanted. Daydreams of an affair with her museum boss dominate her perspective, and her voice is flatter for it.
Carlson excels, however, in small-town Western Americana, in both embracing and interrogating nostalgia in quiet, controlled prose. When Craig finally returns to the reservoir where Matt lost his life, he remarks on how shabby it seems to him now.
“It was more like the Garden of Eden in the old days,” he reminisces.
“Every place was,” a friend retorts.
The novel builds slowly, layering intimate characterization and sharp details as Carlson stretches out the prelude.
The incident at the reservoir, when we finally relive it, is classic Carlson: beautifully compressed, a satisfying punch line to an intricate set-up. “Return to Oakpine” is 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.