Book Review: 'Return To Oakpine'

Alan Cheuse recommends a new novel by Ron Carlson. Return to Oakpine is about a man trying to go home again — to a town in Wyoming — in middle age.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Home, Robert Frost famously wrote, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Well, writer Ron Carlson tests that proposition in his latest work of fiction, a novel called "Return To Oakpine." And he does it, says our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, in beautiful fashion.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The town of Oakpine, Wyoming, doesn't exist on maps, but in this new book of his, Ron Carlson has done a splendid job of making a reader feel at home there. Now, this is going to sound like a guy's novel or a novel filled with guy's issues, but it's also got a strong cast of female characters. Here's the story. Jimmy Brand, a successful fiction writer and journalist, who spent the past 30 years in New York City, travels back to Oakpine to die.

He's suffering in the last phases of AIDS. His dear old friend, Mason Kirby, a flourishing Denver attorney, arrives back at almost the same moment, tired of practicing law. And Kirby sets about refurbishing his parents' old now-abandoned house. And with the help of two old friends who never left Oakpine, the owner of the local hardware store who knows his carpentry and another one who owns the local bar, Kirby resuscitates for a time the old rock and roll band they all put together in high school in order to play one last concert before Jimmy dies.

Ron Carlson's a good carpenter himself when it comes to story and character and setting. And Carlson can sometimes sound the music of the entire novel in a single sentence, as when with two of the characters sitting in that Oakpine bar and suddenly the light dimmed again under a cloud. And it was a moment that went out on them through the big plate glass window across the gray street and up above the town in a moment, reaching past the last house and the few bad roads newly bladed into the prairie and the antelope in clusters on green gray hillsides beyond that. And then, hovering beyond and beyond the world, their lives, the full grabbed sense of afternoon.

A couple of generations of good, if struggling, people, which is to say normal Americans, living in this rural place, both scarred and enshrined by passing time. The music of everyday human speech and the rhythm section of the human heart, all here in this book, along with examples of how to put new windows in an old house.

SIEGEL: The novel is "Return To Oakpine," written by Ron Carlson and reviewed by Alan Cheuse.

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