Return to Oakpine: A Novel

By Ron Carlson

(Viking Adult, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Ron Carlson, who directs the writing program at the University of California at Irvine, has five story collections and four novels to his credit, including “The Signal” and “Five Skies.” His storied have found homes in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, GQ, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Born in Utah, he graduated from the University of Utah and then moved east to teach here in Connecticut at The Hotchkiss School. Highly regarded as a writer of contemporary fiction, Carlson has won several prestigious awards for his work.

What is this book about?

We’re none of us getting any younger, and Carlson explores the wistful and often discomfiting process of growing older while still attempting to grow up in this novel of four men from Wyoming getting back together after many years after following different  paths. In high school, Jimmy, Craig, Mason and Frank played in the same band, called Life on Earth, and Jimmy fled the West for New York City after his brother died tragically. In 1999, now a novelist and fatally ill, he goes home. Mason, a Denver lawyer, comes back to settle his parents’ estate. Craig and Frank are there because they never left. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the band back together.

Why you’ll like it:

If you liked the (sadly) cancelled TV series, “Men of a Certain Age,” you’ll like this book. It’s a tender and thoughtful look at how life happens when you’ve been making other plans, how the decisions made in youth reverberate down the years and how the bonds forged in those days can sustain you decades later. Summer is ending, and this is a book with autumnal warmth and sadness both.

What others are saying:

“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.,” says O, The Oprah Magazine.

Publishers Weekly says: “The smalltown homecoming featured in the fourth novel from Carlson… 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 small town 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. “

Says Kirkus Reviews: “…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… 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. …”

When is it available?

It’s available now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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