Lydia's Reviews > The Signal

The Signal by Ron Carlson
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's review
Oct 04, 11

Read in October, 2011

The Signal was not what I expected. It’s a novel about a man who has lost everything in his life and wants to fix it, but does not entirely seem to be able. The book is broken into the six days he spends with his ex-wife on a camping trip, but includes flashbacks frequently enough for the reader to understand the motivations and feelings of the main character, Mack. This gives the reader a full understanding of Mack and makes him a rounded character.
Throughout the book, Mack is trying to fix his life and rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife, Vonnie, while also attempting to respect her newfound relationship. Carlson does a really good job going through Mack’s past and explaining, slowly but surely, what happened to Mack, from how he met Vonnie, to when his life went off track, and how he felt trying to get it back together. All this background and explanation gives the reader a clear understanding of the characters, but takes a long time to get through. The action in the book doesn’t start until day four of six. This is when the two of them run into some poachers, almost literally. This is when the pace picks up and the drama really sets in. Before this point, everything is about explaining the past.
The title, the Signal, refers to a job that Mack is doing for a questionable man, Yarnell. Yarnell has lost a valuable piece of equipment in the mountains and has asked Mack to go into the mountains to search for the signal the equipment gives off and ultimately bring the machinery back. I found this title pertinent to the book because Carlson does refer to it through the novel as Mack checks his device to try and find the missing machinery, but it seems to take a backseat for the entire story. Even when Mack is actually at the crash site, digging through broken pieces of equipment and discovers the dead body of his friend, I wasn’t concerned with the signal at all, because at this point the poachers were chasing Mack and he was trying to reach Vonnie. In fact, he may still have been in the mountains with Vonnie even if Yarnell had never contacted Mack. This was a trip that they had taken every year for the past decade. It seemed to me the book could be more aptly named.
The first half of the novel, and to some extent that second half as well, is extremely depressing. Everything that Mack said or did made me sad; he is going through a difficult time in his life, having just quit being an alcoholic and getting out of the drug game. This made even his happy memories sad, especially after the reader learns how close he was to his father and how distraught he was when his father died. The first two days I spent reading this book, I lived semi-comatose, wandering my apartment and campus feeling depressed about events that never happened to me and a character that never existed. This shows great ability on the author’s part because inciting emotion in the reader is a sign of a well written piece, but that fact did not make me any happier about my predicament.
Overall, my opinion of the book is a positive one. I felt that it was slow to begin but contained an interesting and realistic story that really picked up in the last third of the book.

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