Like Emily Dickinson, a poet famed for her oblique approach, Ron Rash is in the business of concealing the truth. “Tell it slant,” Dickinson once recommended. “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.”
Since his first book appeared in 1994, Rash’s portraits of life in the mountains of western North Carolina have done just that. Whether chronicling the loss of the region’s lush natural resources in “Serena” and “Saints at the River,” or exploring the effects of that loss in searing short fiction such as 2010’s Burning Bright, his starkly beautiful prose has mapped the heart and soul of southern Appalachia in a way few writers of his generation can match.
Perhaps because he has lived most of his life in the area his ancestors have occupied since the 1700s, Rash rarely concerns himself with characters who live elsewhere. That is not to say the people of Sylva and Blowing Rock and Canton don’t want out — they do, sometimes desperately, even murderously. A splendid new collection of Rash’s short fiction, Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ecco, $24.99), provides 14 front-row seats to their escape attempts, using Dickinson’s stealth technique to perfection.
A star pupil who’s struggled for years to get into college finds himself enmeshed in his ex-girlfriend’s new life as a meth addict in their hometown. A couple facing mounting debts gamble their last $150 at a casino hoping to change their luck. An embittered, one-handed Civil War veteran refuses to let his daughter marry a man who fought for the enemy — unless he agrees to a ghoulish dowry. A British musicologist travels deep into the hills in search of old English ballads and finds a “beldame,” a wizened old granny whose long-lost songs offer a cruel reminder of their shared ancestry.
The stories seem simple on the face of it, but there are minefields galore here, embedded so deftly and deeply into the plot that each one registers only as a hushed, looming inevitability. Concealed beneath Rash’s often unadorned, nearly Shaker prose and modest, aw-shucks language is the barely audible ticking of a bomb about to go off that leaves a blinding truth in its wake.
In the title story, two Oxy addicts who grew up together plot to rob an old man who once made the mistake of showing them his valuable, if shameful, war souvenirs. Once sold, the loot should secure more than a temporary peace from their daily drug cravings. But their muted pangs of conscience and uneasy conversations, the narrator’s memories, the hint that dishonor is a place you don’t return from — are all quietly bundled into a few deadly hours in which Rash outlines the steps they take that finally separate them forever from anything of value.
“The Trusty” is an unshackled member of a chain gang on a dusty road in the 1930s who’s about to make a run for it. He’s worked enough scams in his time to gain anyone’s confidence, from the ‘bull guard” to the employers whose “Help Wanted” signs he reads as “Help Yourself” to the sullen farm wife he charms into helping him escape. Blink, and you’ll miss the clues Rash drops that suggest this time won’t be so easy, but that’s part of what makes his deceptively simple tales — like those of Chekhov or Joyce — so rich they invite a second reading, and a third.
Appalachian speech patterns and phrases, some dating to the Elizabethan period (“especially if you lief to stay clear of outliers,” “she had given him the icy mitts,” “I’d notion you to be glad”) are scattered throughout several stories. In others, such as “Something Rich and Strange,” a delicate lyricism offsets the bleakness of life. In this version of the opening scene of his novel Saints at the River, Rash employs a shimmering, liquid poetry to describe a young girl whose drowning death awakens thoughts of an afterlife in the diver charged with finding her body: “She was less of what she had been, the blue rubbed from her eyes, flesh freed from the chandelier of bone. He touched what had once been a hand. The river whispered to him that it would not be long now.”
A tender celebration of friendship closes the book. In “3 A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” two old veterans who deliver a calf together recall the vow they made in Korea to come home and stay put if they survived the war — a promise that has made up for any adventures they might have missed out on. During their long night, one man describes a feeling of rightness as “the combination that made the last tumbler fall into place.” It’s a faint click you’ll sense every so often in these stories — when love and mercy line up to grant the only kind of grace some of us will ever know.