The past and present co-exist uneasily in Ron Rash’s latest story collection, in much the same way that history is barely submerged in the author’s native Appalachia. “[W]hat is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface,” asks one character caught by the pull of days gone by. Rash brings together past, present and memory, deftly reflecting how the passing years have reshaped ground he knows so well.
The stories of Nothing Gold Can Stay are tough-minded, surprising, illuminating even when Rash leaves much unsaid (often the reader comprehends more than the characters can). But no matter when they are set or who they concern, these stories are kin to each other. The couple in Cherokee, visiting the local casino in need of a lucky break, nestle comfortably in the pages next to the runaway slaves in Where the Map Ends, the characters separated by time and circumstance but linked by a similar desire for freedom — and a willingness to resort to desperate measures to get it.
The Dowry, in which a pastor makes a great sacrifice for a young couple in the days after the Civil War, shares DNA with Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out, in which an aging, widowed veterinarian travels in the middle of the night to help an old friend with an awkward calf birthing. “Come morning,” Rash writes, “liniment would grease their lower backs and shoulders. They would move gingerly, new twinges and aches added to others gained over eight decades.” Both stories share a sense of responsibility and community from which acts of loyalty and kindness flow.
A professor at Western Carolina University, Rash is a student of Appalachia and its ways, and his works are hardbitten gems. His novels — which include The Cove and the PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Serena — examine people made ruthless or forgiving by hard lives and harder choices. His short stories explore similar themes, and brevity never diminishes their impact.
They’re so human, these stories, their characters often caught in trouble of their own making. In Rash’s world, we surely have a hand in our fates. In Twenty-Six Days, the unspoken anxiety of a university janitor and his wife rises as they wait for their soldier daughter’s return from Afghanistan. Her father understands who’s at fault for the way her life has worked out. “[I]f I’d had more ambition years back and gotten a welding certificate or degree at Blue Ridge Tech, made more money, Kerrie wouldn’t be over there.”
The prisoner in The Trusty, working on a chain gang, at first only aims to seduce the young farm wife, but can’t pass up a chance to escape once she offers to help. Things don’t work out as he expects, and he accepts his fate with resignation. In the black comedy A Sort of Miracle, a man named Denton despairs of the two dimwit brothers-in-law living in his house, “lard-asses” who “moved about as much as mushrooms . … Hell, mushrooms probably did more than that. They actually grew. They were finding nutrients, some kind of work was going on down there in the soil.” All these two do is sit on the couch, eat and watch TV medical shows, and yet Denton finds himself at their mercy when he insists they accompany him on a bear-trapping trip.
They understand their limitations, these people. The college student who has escaped the drug-fueled fate of his classmates and high school sweetheart in Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven understands the precarious nature of his position: “Three more years. … More loans to pay back and, in such an uncertain economy, perhaps no job.”
As he has in such stories as Back of Beyond from the collection Burning Bright, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Rash writes simply but eloquently about the scourge of methamphetamine. “In the afternoon light he saw the yellow tinge and wondered if they were using needles too. Hepatitis was common from what he’d read on the internet. Lauren’s jeans hung loose on her hips, her teeth nubbed and discolored as Indian corn.”
And yet, “there’s a wonder to it yet,” one of the old men in Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out says about life. Even after all the hardship and loss. Maybe that’s what fuels the dreams that grow in Appalachia’s unforgiving mountains — and Rash’s fertile imagination.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.