Library Director’s Notebook
When does a book of fiction earn the exalted title “literary fiction”? Well, that’s a tough one. I was joking with a friend the other day about this and I quipped, “you know a book can count as literary fiction if it ends sad, and there’s very little kissing in it!”
What I meant was that literary fiction doesn’t follow easy formulas. Where many writers of popular fiction ensure strong sales by having the good guys come out on top and everything tied up neatly in the end, writers of literary fiction often kill off their favorite characters, if the logic of the story demands it. Relationships might be important in literary fiction, but light romantic love affairs rarely are. And in many a work of literary fiction, a budding romance seems to attract bad luck the way a bright lake attracts lightning.
Does this mean that literary fiction is dull or not worth reading unless you want to give yourself a major bout of depression? Not at all! For people who really love language and the power of words to convey ideas and emotions that are real, rather than contrived or trite, literary fiction is a powerful pleasure. Which leads me to a wonderful work of literary fiction I just finished: Five Skies by Ron Carlson.
It’s no coincidence that I read Five Skies because it is this year’s pick for the Reading Across RI book. As you may know, Reading Across RI (RARI) is a state- wide program, run by the RI Center for the Book at Providence Public Library, in an effort to encourage Rhode Islanders to read and discuss good books. I don’t think I would have read Five Skies if it hadn’t been the RARI selection. That’s because at first glance it didn’t sound like a book that would interest me.
It’s a modern story, set in the West, about 3 men who are not particularly articulate, building a weird bicycle jump over a canyon in Idaho. Hmmmm. Most of the stories that I pick are historical fiction, often set in another country, and feature women rather than men as the protagonists. Well, you should never judge a book by its cover or by its threadbare plot summary. After a few pages, I realized I had my hands on a book that was well worth reading, the kind of book that slows you down so you can savor every word, every incident, every implied shift in the characters’ lives.
Five Skies is mostly about three men: Darwin, Arthur, and Ronnie. Darwin is approaching old age; Art is in his forties, and Ronnie is a teenager. At first they are an ill-assorted trio, circling each other warily like three half-starved dogs. But drawn together by common work, they come to trust each other, learn from each other, and protect each other, as far as they can.
In various ways and at different times they confess to each other their secret fears and heartaches. Although their words come slowly and often in a kind of male brusqueness, meant to cover strong emotion, they grow stronger together and face down their demons. The two older men are protective of the younger one, who in turn grows to trust them as he has never trusted anyone before.
But this is literary fiction, remember? And as I said earlier, that means it is almost certainly going to end with sadness. Not for everyone, but for someone. I won’t be a spoiler and say what happens, but the ending of Five Skies took me by surprise and left me gasping. That’s what powerful writing does, makes you gasp and tremble and wish you could re-write just that last little bit of the book so it could end with a smile.
There’s a cinematic quality to this book that makes me think it would make a fine film with an ensemble cast who could make the most of this haunting story about friendship, hard work, and personal redemption. But no matter how fine a movie it might some day be, it will never be better than the book. There is something about the visceral experience of reading a book, at your own pace and with your own inner eye roving over the revealed world of the book, that cannot be matched.
Join us for our discussion of Five Skies this February. If you can’t make that discussion, be sure to join other readers across RI who will discover the pleasures of Five Skies.