Like most every dog, my dog Oscar ignores the television, except for one thing: Jeopardy's Daily Double pchoo pchoo pchoo sound. Invariably, when he hears that, he barks. I sometimes think there are books that work this way, that occasionally, we find those authors who are just so attuned to our frequency that our response is a kind of reflex.
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I read 60 to 70 books to completion a year (and sample about twice that many), and the pchoo pchoo pchoo only happens about once every three or four months. I enjoy almost all the books I read — otherwise, I'd stop reading them — but there seems to be that extra thing that happens when a book burrows in like it was written as a custom job just for me.
I wrote about one of these books a few months ago, Tom Drury's "Pacific," and now it's happened again with Ron Carlson's "Return to Oakpine."
There's nothing remarkable about the novel's premise. Set in 1999, a group of four friends from a small Wyoming town have gathered together 30 years post high school graduation. They have some apparent unfinished business.
Some of them, like Craig Ralston, who owns the local hardware store, have never left Oakpine, while one of them, Jimmy Brand, hasn't set foot in the town since graduation and the "tragic" death of his brother. Jimmy is dying of AIDS, having previously lost his partner to the disease. Out of options, he returns home, exiled to a guest house fashioned out of his parents' garage because his father cannot accept the truth of his son's sexuality and maybe blames Jimmy for not preventing his other son's death.
The plot is unremarkable. Jimmy is not going to be saved because people with AIDS in 1999 did not survive. Another one of the friends, Mason Kirby, spends the novel fixing up his parents' old house to put it on the market. Larry Ralston, Craig's teenage son, has to decide if whether his best friend is a genuinely bad person, and if he's therefore justified in stealing his best friend's girlfriend. Marci Ralston, Craig's wife and Larry's mother, isn't sure if the thrill of being desired by her handsy boss is worth her marriage.
Twenty pages in, I turned to my wife and said that I was enjoying the book so much that I never wanted it to end. It is pitched to my frequency. I'm wondering why — and how?
Books like "Return to Oakpine" and "Pacific" and maybe some of the other books that are my pchoo pchoo pchoo provide a sustenance that I must need.
You see, I have a generally low opinion of humankind. Our ability to be monstrous to each other appears to be nearly bottomless. In the last 30 minutes alone, I have read about atrocities in Syria, a middle-school girl who was bullied into suicide via social media and a series of disgusting tweets from mouth-breathing racists who think it's somehow un-American for Miss America to be of Indian descent.
In "Return to Oakpine," Ron Carlson shows us what it means to choose to be decent to one another. These choices the characters make invariably come with costs, significant ones, but they make them anyway. The novel — like "Pacific" before it or John Williams' "Stoner" or Lynda Barry's "Cruddy" or any of the other books pitched to my frequency (list available by request) — reminds me that sometimes we are capable of grace.
We are monstrous, but we need not act as monsters do.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joan Didion
2. "Herzog" by Saul Bellow
3. "City of God" by E.L. Doctorow
4. "The Laziest Secretary in the World" by Jennifer Blowdryer
5. "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead
— Elise H., Oakland, Calif.