The Signal

“I feel like I wasted my entire month!”

No, that is not a character in the book The Signal by Ron Carlson.  It was a member of my book discussion after reading The Signal by Ron Carlson.

How important is it that members of a book discussion all “like” the book?  I vote “not at all.”  In fact, when I train librarians on how to run a book discussion, I make it a point to say that sometimes the book that angers your members the most may lead to the best discussion.

That certainly happened last night.  The vast majority of the attendees were not happy with Mr. Carlson.

The Signal is a challenging book to read.  The plot has a number of branches so let us look at each.The-Signal-by-Ron-Carlson

The main character is named Mack and he has a lot of back story.  He has grown up without a mother’s influence, under the guidance of his father who runs a ranch in Wyoming that is visited by non-Western tourists looking for the wilderness experience.  His father trains Mack to be a master guide as well as a fisherman;  the emphasis is on getting away from anything civilized and stripping down to the essentials needed to survive in the wilds of Wyoming.

When Mack’s father dies, the responsibility of maintaining the ranch falls on his young shoulders and therein lies one of the first problems with Mack:  he is anti-social.  Not anti-social enough, however, to prevent a young woman named Vonnie from Chapel Hill to fall in love with him over a series of visits to the ranch on family excursions.

Vonnie and Mack do get married but live a very hard life as he roams from one failure to another. But one of the highlights of their marriage is an annual backpacking trip into the Wind River area that they consider a family tradition.

That is just the back story and part of my group’s issue with this book is that the information is not dispense in a chronological fashion but is instead retold as the present story evolves.

And here is where the group and I agreed:  the present story seemed a little vague.  Evidently there is an agency that works with a man named Yarnell to develop drone technology and Yarnell has lost a part of it in the wilderness.  Yarnell is a slippery character but that does not keep Mack from agreeing to hike into the wild to find the part using a device to track a homing signal.  (To say this portion of the plot is unresolved would be accurate).

What makes this novel appealing to me is that Mack decides that he can not only track down the missing airplane part but he can combine that activity with reuniting with his lost love Vonnie.  As time has gone on, Mack has lost his way, fallen on hard times, committed crimes and been in jail.  He is released just in time to commence the tenth annual (and final as far as Vonnie is concerned) trek into the woods.

All the action takes place over the six days of the trip.  All the back story is mixed into that as reminiscence.  Mix in Mack’s proclivity to tell folk tales based on the history of a character called Hiram Corazon and you have quite a literary stew.

Under the terms of full disclosure, while the majority of my members did not appreciate this book, I felt is was filled with very fine writing.  The unbalance narrative was so curious to me that its positive qualities let me set aside my confusion over the plot.

Now here is the punchline:  the group talked about this book for ninety minutes last night without even taking a breath.  The discussion was not an attack on the book but rather a vibrant and lively discussion based on the group’s interest in figuring out the plot, the setting and the characters.

So, while someone felt they had wasted a month reading the book, I felt like we utilized every minute of discussion to do exactly what we wanted to last night.  And, isn’t that what it is all about?



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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