Labor Day Podcast: Ron Carlson's Classic Tale of Terrycloth and Theoretical Math

Ron Carlson's short story, "Towel Season" (first published in Esquire in 1998) is a modern classic, as much about reconciling vocation and family life, as a portrait of summer in a neighborhood where recursive towels and seemingly fixed-value adults travel from cookout to cookout. The story is narrated by a theoretical mathematician who's grasping after his big discovery, the one that will save him from plain old applied engineering. Innumerates need not fear the subject matter: the process of theoretical math is suggested in visual, accessible language. The story runs more wet than dry, and it's a pleasure to follow the trail of towels to the silver bus at the puzzle-like ending, where the towels are dropped and math and theory get melded with marriage.

PRI: Selected Shorts has reposted the audio of actor James Naughton reading "Towel Season" in their Selected Shorts iTunes podcast just in time for Labor Day 2009. Naughton reads with unassuming comedic timing, and his voice lends a everyman quality to the suburban yet "unsettled" character of Edison. The "Towel Season" audio runs about 35 minutes (long enough to grill some boneless chicken), and it's followed by "A Bad Joke," a short Ha Jin story read by B.D. Wong. The combined podcast, titled "Figuring It Out," will be available for free download for four weeks.

If you must hear "Towel Season" after the weather's cooled and the title has expired from the podcast, you can purchase the Selected Shorts: William Hurt Collection 3-CD compilation from NPR. The Collection includes audio of Hurt reading "Towel Season," as well as stories by Aleksander Hemon, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff.

Non-audio news: Carlson's most recent book is the novel The Signal. Carlson talks about his new book, and also his "Towel Season" story, in this profile from The Orange County Register.