In his collection At the Jim Bridger
, Ron Carlson exhibits an old-fashioned humanity. He not only believes in the self, he believes that it's a good thing. The men and boys in these stories stumble into quietly critical moments that invite them to surrender their integrity. Some succumb, some don't, but the author himself is clearly never in doubt that integrity exists and that it matters. The problem is brought up most explicitly in the exquisite, funny opening story, "Towel Season." Edison is a theoretical engineer who lives with his young family in a chummy suburb. Over the course of one summer--one "towel season"--Edison pursues a slippery engineering problem by day and socializes with his neighbors by night. The other dads all work in applied engineering, and they exert a gentle pressure on Edison to get his head out of the clouds. Normal life tugs at Edison, tempting him. His resistance turns the piece into an oddly resonant love story.
Short-fiction fans have likely bumped into "The Ordinary Son" in one anthology or another. It's the unforgettably comic story of the only nongenius in a family of geniuses: "I was hanging out sitting around my bare room, reading books, the History of This, the History of That, dry stuff, waiting for my genius to kick in." At the Jim Bridger is a convention of just such fascinating, ordinary characters. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
In this taut, focused collection, veteran short story writer Carlson (The Hotel Eden) captures the ordinary occurrences that define our lives. Sharing graceful, unadorned prose and elegant metaphors, the nine stories and two brief sketches collected here portray characters at moments when the solid ground of reality slips out from under them. High school figures prominently: for Carlson, the teenage years offer the perfect transitional moments, when minor incidents are writ large. Fortunately, he depicts these mundane experiences a boy's first date ("The Potato Gun"), his first fistfight ("At Copper View"), his first car ("The Ordinary Son") with neither condescension nor irony, but a mixture of serious reflection and naive wonder. In "The Ordinary Son," Reed's average intelligence in a family of geniuses makes him its only distinctive member; he amazes his young brother, who is practicing quantum physics with crayons, with the simple pleasure of his brand-new car. Elsewhere, the teenager's unique sense of alienation is a chronic condition: in "Towel Season," Edison's absorbing interest in a highly theoretical engineering project separates him from the neighborhood husbands and wives; in the title story, Donner's recounting of a near-death incident on a camping trip leads to a brief connection between him and a woman who is not his wife. With a precision and consistency rarely achieved in similar collections, this volume should earn Carlson continued, well-deserved recognition. National advertising; author tour.
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