Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Return to Oakpine’

by Ann Euston for High Country News

‘Return to Oakpine’

Ron Carlson

272 pages, hardcover: $18.90

Viking Press, 2013

Welcome to Oakpine, a fictional small town on Wyoming’s eastern plains where four high school pals reunite in 1999, after 30 years spent leading very separate lives. In his latest novel, “Return to Oakpine,” award-winning author Ron Carlson tells a moving but quiet tale about a group of regular guys who don’t say much to each other as they try to figure out where their lives have gone to so far and where they’re headed now.

Two of the characters have never left Oakpine: Craig, a second-generation hardware store owner; and Frank, proprietor of the Antlers bar and a novice microbrewer. Two are returning: Mason, a disillusioned Denver lawyer; and Jimmy, an accomplished New York City writer with AIDS who’s come home to die. In a subtle, bittersweet farewell to Jimmy, the friends decide to reconstitute “Life on Earth,” their not-so-hot high school garage band, in order to enter a Battle of the Bands in nearby Gillette. The teenagers who still live inside their middle-aged bodies are deftly mirrored in Larry, Craig’s 17-year-old son.

In Oakpine, big events like divorce and death are dealt with matter-of-factly. High school football, power tools, beer and adolescent love shake hands with busted-up marriages, frightening diseases and unresolved issues, painting an uncannily accurate portrait of “just folks” muddling through bewildering times. As one of the friends ruefully remarks, “You go along knowing, but when you do know, it still is a surprise.”

Instead of the ruined anti-hero loners who often star in Carlson’s stories, these men are immediately recognizable, making “Return to Oakpine” perhaps his most universally appealing novel. And as always in Carlson’s work, landscape plays a pivotal role: “Over everything in the West, the sky was purple at the horizon, blowing up to gray. It was a comic book version of a storm. …”

While the book isn’t perfect — the women at times verge on stereotypes and Larry is occasionally a slightly too-perfect high school senior — Carlson employs his elegantly spare prose to tell a complete and satisfying tale in less than 300 pages.