Literary Decency

Ron Carlson again proves he's a master of the short story with 'At the Jim Bridger.'

Ron Carlson is something rare--a professor of English and creative writing (at Arizona State University) who can actually write.

Most of today's literati think so too, proving that's also not automatically a debilitating factor. His work has appeared in Harper's, GQ and Esquire, and you'll find him in both the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He's authored several other story collections, including The Hotel Eden, Plan B for the Middle Class and The News of the World, along with two novels, Truants and Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Carlson lives in Scottsdale with his wife, Elaine, and two children.

Carlson is rightfully considered a master of that unfortunately fading genre, the short story. He what Larry McMurtry is to the Western, a writer who makes us wonder why so many have quit publishing them. Part of the problem is there are simply fewer people today who know how to write them.

Carlson writes a lot about people growing up, both now and in prior decades. In earlier times, with magazine racks containing far fewer options than today, you could find a host of then first-rate magazines filled with great examples of the short story. I first met C.S. Forester's "Horatio Hornblower" and James Warner Bellah's "Sergeant Quincannon" in the old Saturday Evening Post. It was a time when less was more.

At the Jim Bridger contains nine stories and two interludes. All are set in the modern West, from Utah and Texas to Arizona, and, in the case of the title story, Wyoming. Some portray small-town life, some suburbia, still others life in the outdoors. The title story revolves around an incident of wilderness survival. I suspect that many of those from the two coasts who praise Carlson's work have no way of knowing if he got the atmosphere he so vividly portrays correct. He did.

That's a big piece of Carlson's ability: He can put you in another time and place and make you believe you're there. Most of these places are where Carlson himself has been, both geographically and emotionally. All but one of his central characters are male, ranging in age from high school to middle age.

The stories are often deceptively simple while the characters are diverse. From a loser night watchman in "At the El Sol" to a mathematical wizard in "Towel Season" to a TV anchorman in "The Clicker at Tips," they all share a basic decency. Carlson grabs you by giving you characters you want to have succeed, you want to be happy, you want to get the girl--people you genuinely LIKE.

The single greatest skill Carlson possesses is his ability to write. He handles the language magnificently, and his metaphors ring. Here's one small example: "Everyone saw her as charming for she represented a stage they'd all known but could not sustain, a dear wakefulness that had in them subsided" (from "Gary Garrison's Wedding Vows"). There are many more, like the three-page gem, "Single Woman for Long Walks on Beach," a three-page sentence and a minor masterpiece, like an etude from a great composer.

Carlson seamlessly weaves added credibility with his references to everyday objects, places and even brand names. In five of the nine full stories, there are three different beers and two whiskies named. He also rarely uses profanity, and his sex scenes are far from graphic--just part of the stories when needed. Most don't contain any, proving they aren't all that important. You can give this book to Mom for Christmas and not worry. With Carlson's characters, values trump spectacle. Even the sleazy watchman in "At the El Sol" has ultimately redeeming qualities. Redemption is a piece of Carlson, as are love and compassion and duty and other basics.

Ron Carlson is clearly the kind of guy you want to have a couple of beers with. Try to forgive him that ASU and Scottsdale stuff. He's one of Arizona's major assets.

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