The world of Ron Rash reveals new pieces
by Rob Neufeld
“I like to think that all that I’ve written forms a kind of quilt about the Appalachian mountains,” Ron Rash says in the wake of publishing his most recent book, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a collection of 14 stories.
“Each novel, each story, each poem is a piece of that quilt. My hope is to describe that place and the people in it as well as I can—not only in the present, but through time.”
In 2010, Rash won the Frank O’Connor International Story Award, considered the most prestigious for that literary form. His latest volume embraces hard luck characters and uses narrative surprises and open endings to create feelings of empathy.
Conned or the conner
The book’s first story, “The Trusty,” does a masterful job of playing with the reader’s empathy.
“They had been moving up the road a week without seeing another farmhouse,” it begins, connecting us to a man named Sinkler, a conman convicted of embezzlement. It’s Sinkler’s job to haul water for road crew prisoners, who, unlike Sinkler, have to wear leg irons.
“How come you not to have chains on you?” a young housewife asks him when he approaches to request use of her well.
“I’m a trusty,” he says. “A prisoner, but one that can be trusted.”
So begins a dead serious series of conversations, laced with flirtations, demands, and gambits, that would suit the hero and heroine in a James Cain novel. (Picture John Garfield.)
In a recent interview, Rash revealed how his fertile imagination works.
“The Trusty” started with an image, he said. “A friend of mine mentioned that when she’d been a child, a trusty had come to her house one time for water. Essentially, I imagined him on a dirt road with a bucket in his hand. I knew, for him to be a trusty, it would have to be in the past.
“Okay,” Rash continued, “I have him walk up this road, and what’s he going to find? He found,” he says, laughing, “this very attractive young woman.
“I knew that he was wanting to escape; or he would want to be with this woman. I also knew that he would have a good number of assumptions about her, including her intelligence.”
Outsiders’ assumptions about Appalachian people are part of the quilt.
Veering and sinking
As in much of Rash’s fiction, there’s the sense that the mountain region is both a haven and a trap.
In the title story, two 23-year-old opiate addicts on their way to a heist reflect on when they used to go night fishing after a day’s work on a highway crew.
Mission accomplished—sadly with callousness—the boys cross the river and the narrator sees that “a small light glows on the far bank, a lantern or a campfire. Out beyond it, fish move in a current, alive in that other world.”
In “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” Rash takes a poem of the same name from his 2011 book, “Waking,” enlarges the characters’ lives, and, as in the poem, turns to the night sky for solace.
“It’s nice to look up and see something that never changes,” Darnell, a farmer, tells Carson, a retired veterinarian. “When I was in Korea, I’d find the Big Dipper and the Huntress and the Archer…same as if I were in North Carolina.”
The mountains are a trap in Rash’s fiction for a few reasons: remoteness, economic hard times, a sense of fatalism, and the ways in which the region has been exploited.
In the story, “Cherokee,” a young couple tries to climb out of their down-sucking poverty by taking their meager savings to the casino. They’d overspent to buy a dream truck (used), and needed to make payments.
Rash plays with the reader to the very end, making you wonder if the heroes are going to take what they’ve gotten or push their luck.
A threatened people
Drowning imagery recurs in Rash’s work as an expression of the love, pathos, and regret he feels for his people.
How can we forget the drowning at the beginning of his novel, “Saints at the River”? A new version of that episode appears in “Nothing Gold” as the story, “Something Rich and Strange.”
And how can we erase from our memories the dam-project-flooded community in “Not Waving but Drowning,” published in “Chemistry and Other Stories”?
The new volume adds to the pull of that consciousness.
“Water has its own archaeology,” the story, “The Woman at the Pond,” begins—“not a layering but a leveling, and thus is truer to our sense of the past, because what is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface.”
In the story, “A Sort of Miracle,” Denton, an accountant, falls into a freezing creek. Rash is at his grim and comic best.
Denton is afflicted by two good-for-nothing brothers-in-law, but is no paragon himself, since he’s given to foolish desperation when he begins to have problems in the sack.
He thinks about the way the boys’ eye color changes when they watch TV, and then about a 12th grade biology experiment that had altered his life with random bad luck.
“Everybody else’s fruit flies had changed eye color except Denton’s,” Rash relates about Denton’s classroom failure. “His just crawled around on the glass for an hour and then died. He got a D- on a major nine-week project,” and he hadn’t even picked which flies he’d gotten. He received no college scholarship offers. “The damn fruit flies had made sure of that.”
Bad luck is the name people give to the probability of injury in a merciless environment.
The comic story comes in Part II of a three-part grouping.
“What I was hoping to do,” Rash says about the structure, “is bring the reader into that world”— another kind of askew "world made straight."
“In Part I, you start in the past and end in the past,” he explained. “The second part—it’s like a musical score. Two of the stories (in that section) are humorous. It gives the reader a break from the dark intensity. In the third section, I hope the reader senses a kind of lightening up, a more hopeful sense.”
In the world of Rash’s fiction, there are tragic figures, willful outsiders, Faulknerian endurers, screw-ups, loners, and heroes capable of sacrifice.
Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories by Ron Rash (HarperCollins: Ecco hardcover, 247 pages, $24.99)