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The Latest: That '60s book, and that '70s album

July 12, 2013
  • "Return to Oakpine," by Ron Carlson.
"Return to Oakpine," by Ron Carlson. (Daily Pilot )

Return to Oakpine

by Ron Carlson

Viking; 264 pages

The high school years are such a slim period — about one 20th of a typical lifespan — and yet they can weigh so heavily in our memory. To attend a reunion is to be overjoyed to see old classmates and content to go another decade without seeing most of them again. And there must be few lonelier states than viewing those formative years as a work still in progress, a project that waits naggingly to be resolved.

That wistfulness lies at the heart of Ron Carlson's "Return to Oakpine," a gentle meditation of a novel about four former high school friends in Wyoming who revive the rock band they played in together as teenagers in 1969. Eventually christened Life on Earth, it wasn't much of a band then — it knew a handful of cover tunes — and it's even more diminished now. One of the members, who recently moved back to town, is dying of AIDS, and he and his bandmates dust off their old instruments as both a comfort and a distraction.

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The dying member, Jimmy Brand, left the fictional town of Oakpine soon after graduation and became a renowned novelist and critic. (He's haunted by the boating death of his revered older brother, a subplot that bears a distinct resemblance to Judith Guest's "Ordinary People.") Two of the former members of the band, Craig Ralston and Frank Gunderson, settled in Oakpine. The fourth, Mason Kirby, embarked on a lucrative law career and is now nursing a midlife crisis.

As Life on Earth prepares for a comeback of sorts at a local battle of the bands, Carlson eases us into the rhythms of Oakpine, a down-home world where football is king, the tavern proudly brews its own beer and the museum occupies an abandoned train station.

Contrasting the shaky hopes of the adults are a pair of teenage characters, Craig's sardonic son Larry and his aspiring-author friend Wendy, who peer at adulthood from the opposite end of the spectrum. (Larry takes pride in covering all of Oakpine on his evening runs, a feat that, in typical adolescent hubris, makes him compare himself to Ferdinand Magellan.)

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