"Return to Oakpine," by Ron Carlson. (Daily Pilot / July 9, 2013)

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.

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.)

Given how the 1960s have been mythologized over time, the bare bones of this plot — high school buddies form a band in the year of Woodstock, go their separate ways, then reunite for one last valiant effort — sound like a minefield of Baby Boomer sentimentality. Still, Carlson, who directs the Master of Fine Arts program in fiction at UC Irvine, has something deeper in mind than nostalgia. With the band's reunion deliberately kept on a small scale, the resurrection of Life on Earth becomes a metaphor for trying to mend the past itself — to revive the days before, as one character puts it, "time broke in two, and then we've had the rest."

Some of Carlson's dialogue reads more like scripted poetry than off-the-cuff speech (it's hard to imagine a line like, "And we've got all the doors, even the one downstairs, which is still pockmarked from antiquity, a door into which I threw a thousand darts competing with Frank Gunderson and Jimmy Brand" being said out loud), but his prose has a painterly assurance.

In one of the book's most poignant scenes, Jimmy dreams about stocking his bedroom with remnants from his life — baby toys, adult clothes, his guitar — only to have them disappear a few at a time. Whether in a pop song or an end-of-life reverie, closure can be so elusive.

—Michael Miller


Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock

Various Artists

Self released; two-disc compilation

Let's get this out there before we start: I'm only 24 years old, but I've been listening to music for as long as I can remember.

With that being said, one of my editors asked me if I wanted to review "Drink a Toast to Innocence: A Tribute to Lite Rock." It's a compilation of 27 artists and bands from across the country doing covers of late 1970s and early 1980s hits.

When I say hits, it's more like one-hit wonders. But there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's a soft spot in my heart for those catchy tunes.

I was a little hesitant to review the two-disc set at first, but then I noticed a few gems on the track list.