Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Return to Oakpine

Summary: In this finely wrought portrait of western American life, Ron Carlson takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, and into the lives of four men trying to make peace with who they are in the world. 

 In high school, these men were in a band. One of them, Jimmy, left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother. A successful novelist, he has returned thirty years later, in 1999—because he is dying. 

With Carlson’s characteristic grace, we learn what has become of these friends and the different directions of their lives. Craig and Frank never left; Mason, a top lawyer in Denver, is back in town to fix up and sell his parents’ house. Now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most important thing they can do. 

Return to Oakpine is a generous, tender look at friendship, family, and the roads not taken, by a writer at the peak of his craft. -- Viking

I actually read RETURN TO OAKPINE by Ron Carlson in the middle of the summer and just realized that I never reviewed it. That's not a testament to the quality of the novel -- it really is a beautifully written story. It just shows how far behind I am with writing reviews!

RETURN TO OAKPINE tells the story of four middle-aged men who reunite in their hometown of Oakpine, Wyoming, thirty years after high school. Jimmy, a successful author who moved to New York City after the tragic death of his brother, has returned to die from AIDS. Mason, who has had success as an attorney but not as a husband, comes back to fix up and sell his parents' house. Craig and Frank never left Oakpine -- Craig owns a local bar and Frank runs a hardware store. All four of these men were once friends and members of a rock band; however, their lives have gone in very different directions. While looking back over the past thirty years, these four men see that the one thing they have in common is making music so they decide to reunite the band for old times' sake.

RETURN TO OAKPINE is the first book (or story) that I've read by Mr. Carlson, and I have to say that I was extremely impressed with his writing -- it's both powerful and beautiful at the same time. Every word seems to have been chosen for a specific reason. RETURN TO OAKPINE isn't one of those books that has a lot of action or plot. Rather, it's a quiet story about friendship, life choices, family, and coming home.

One of the really strong aspects of RETURN TO OAKPINE is how the author made these four men so real and also so complex. I haven't read many books that focus on male friendships (in fact, I can't think of a single one right now!), so I found it extremely interesting to get their insight into the relationships in their lives. I also loved how Mr. Carlson juxtaposed the various choices these men made in their lives. Two of the men decided to leave their hometown, while two stayed; and it was interesting to see how all four men had regrets albeit very different ones.

Furthermore, I thought the author did an amazing job of bringing to life the small town of Oakpine, and I actually think Oakpine became a character in its own right throughout this novel. It was almost surprising to see how little the town changed over the past thirty years; and in many ways, I think Oakpine represented traditional hometown Americana.

I think what I enjoyed most about this book were the messages of the novel... or at least, what I took away from the story. Life is all about choices and everyone has at last one or two regrets as they look back at their lives. However, we continue to look and move forward as we search for happiness and contentment.

RETURN TO OAKPINE would make a wonderful book club selection especially for male book clubs. (Now that's not something I say every day!) I was disappointed that I couldn't find a reading guide, but I think most established book clubs won't have any issues with finding topics to discuss. Some of the themes you might want to explore include friendships, marriage, grief, loss, forgiveness, second chances, family, home, redemption, and happiness.

I enjoyed RETURN TO OAKPINE a great deal and I look forward to reading more of Mr. Carlson's writing. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

I can't think of any books that focus on male friendships either and now I'm wondering why that is. This sounds great!

Beth Hoffman said...

Had I seen this book at the bookstore, I would have passed it by because of the cover. I need to stop doing that because your review has me so intrigued that I'm going to give this book a try.