I have read all the stories in Ron Rash’s previous two major collections: Chemistry and Other Stories, Picador Paperback Original, 2007; and Burning Bright, HarperCollins, 2010, which won the richly endowed Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize (35,000 Euro [$45,900] in 2010). He had his first big success with his novel Serena, which was a New York Times bestseller; you can get a bitter taste of its titular character in the story “Pemberton’s Bride” in the collection Chemistry. I think the stories in his new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay are his best yet.
Rash stands to enjoy even more success with the upcoming film based on the novel, directed by Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as newly-married Serena and George Pemberton building a timber empire in Depression-Era North Carolina. The film is scheduled for release on September 27, 2013.
Rash’s stories has appeared in the best quarterlies, such as Sewanee Review, South Carolina Review, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Review, but perhaps not often read in those low-circulation journals. He did not make it to The New Yorker until the May 23, 2011 edition with the opening story to Nothing Gold Can Stay, “Trusty.” It is not one of Rash’s best stories, but with its careful control of the old “biter-bite” story, it is a good introduction to Rash’s management of the short story form.
I like the stories of Ron Rash, although, as I have noted in previous essays, I am a bit skeptical when writers run the risk of exploring or exploiting the people from the Appalachian Mountains who I grew up with. Rash’s stories have their complement of hardheaded old hillbillies and meth-headed young no-accounts. But he does not condescend to them. He may not always like them, but he always respects them. And he always seems to know what is in their hearts.
For example, in the title story (the title also of a Robert Frost poem you can find online), two young men break into an old man’s house to steal gold uniform buttons, souvenirs of war. But even as we are disgusted by their act, at the end of the story, even as the young man who tells the story pops the pills they have bought into his mouth, he looks toward the river and sees a lantern or a campfire. “Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world.”
One of my favorite stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay, because it embodies the kind of delicate poetry that saves Rash’s often coarse and ignorant characters from our scorn, is “Something Rich and Strange”—an extended prose poem about a young girl who gets carried away in a fast-moving stream and drowns. What the diver, whose story it is, goes in the water to find her body finds at the bottom of the stream, he does find something “rich and strange” about the nature of human vulnerability and the harsh beauty of time.
Another favorite, also an extended poem, is the concluding story, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” in which two old friends, Carson and Darnell, both who have lost their wives and live alone, deliver a breech calf together. The story ends with them shaking hands and Carson driving away, thinking, “Darnell would hang the lantern back on its nail, maybe smoke another cigarette as he stood at the barn mouth, attentive as any good sentry.”
The trouble with writing about Ron Rash’s stories is that anything you might say about them is likely to be a spoiler. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, Rash’s stories always seem more than just their plots, so a plot summary would not tell you a whole lot; on the other hand, a plot summary would indeed “spoil” the pleasure of following a story’s deceptively simple narrative movement toward an ending that crystallizes everything.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin notes Rash’s gift for “hard-hitting surprise endings,” adding that both Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling would have loved “A Sort of Miracle,” the hilarious story of an accountant named Denton saddled with two worthless brother-in-laws that his wife won’t let him throw out. Because of their wallowing around on the couch all day watching medical shows, Denton has begun to experience what medical folks nowadays call erectile dysfunction.
Rather than embarrass himself by going to a doctor and then to a drugstore to get Viagra, Denton goes into the mountains (taking his no-account brother-in-laws with him) to trap a bear, having read that an old Chinese medicine to cure ED uses the paws and gall bladder of a bear. The ending isn‘t pretty, and to laugh at it, which you can’t help doing, might make you feel a little heartless. I am not going to tell you the ending, for that would be a spoiler.
“A Servant of History” is about a British academic who comes to Appalachia in the early 1920s to find and transcribe mountain songs that have their roots in English ballads. He knows little or nothing about folks who live in the North Carolina hills, so when he finds an old woman whose name suggests Scottish origins, he pompously plays up his own Scottish roots with, as usual in a Rash story, disastrous results—also funny, but also painful. Again, I am not going to tell you the ending, which is poetically justice and an emblem of the man’s ignorance.
In “Twenty-Six Days” the narrator, a janitor at a regional college, has bought a copy of Chekhov’s stories for his daughter and sits in his truck reading the story “Misery” about the man who has lost his son and no one will listen to him but the horse that pulls his coach. Although the janitor says, “You’d think a story like that would be hokey,” it brings tears to his eyes.
And then there is “The Dowry,” which involves the need to exact revenge for an old Civil War veteran’s lost hand; the story ends with a potentially simplistic solution, but which, as usual, Rash manages to bring off painfully but believably.
In “Cherokee,” a young couple goes to an Indian casino and tries to turn $157 into a thousand dollars so they can make back payments on a truck they bought. You expect the worse when they win the thousand and then must decide whether to go on, but Rash is not that easy.
In “The Magic Bus,” a young woman named Sabra comes to the aid of a hippie couple whose car boils over while driving by the North Carolina farm where she seems destined to spend her life. Of course they invite her to come with them, and of course, she is tempted to do so, but then Rash does the unexpected again
Matthew Gilbert in his review of Nothing Gold Can Stay in The Boston Globe says that although “violent twists,” “unexpected and haunting,” mark all the stories, Rash does not present puzzles in his fiction, not does he play tricks; his stories tend toward “a carefully gauged ambiguity that can leave a reader retracing events, asking: What really just happened?” And this, of course, is a characteristic that makes any summary of the plots of the story spoilers, albeit simplistic spoilers.
I not only like Ron Rash’s short stories, I also like it that he understands the short story as a form that may begin with a single image or an overheard remark which, with honest exploration and a keen sense of the language, becomes something unpredictable and meaningful. Although Rash’s stories depend on plot, they never seem planned. Rash has said:
I never outline, I never plot. I really don’t know where it’s going. Maybe I have a vague idea, but I think sometimes there’s a danger that comes from having an outline, that you’re kind of putting it on rails, not allowing the story to jump off and go to a place that is surprising to the reader, and to you as a writer. I go by instinct, and that’s scary. Usually when I write a novel, I can have worked about a year and it’ll die on me. I don’t know where it’s going, and it feels hopeless. There can be three, four months where it just seems dead. I almost always start with an image. I just see where the image will take me.”
I also like his respectful understanding of the poetic nature of the form. In a Daily Beast interview, Rash talked about the difference between writing poetry, novels and short stories:
“I think writing a poem is like being a greyhound. Writing a novel is like being a mule. You go up one long row, then down another, and try not to look up too often to see how far you still have to go. Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry—the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible—but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”
You might suspect that I am partial to Ron Rash’s stories because I am an old hillbilly myself who can’t resist stories about a region and a people I know well. I admit I enjoy reading fiction about people of the Appalachian Mountains; I have even written a story or two about those people. I would like to think that my mountain background makes me a demanding reader of such stories, for I cannot abide outsiders who know little about mountain people but try to write about them anyway, or, worse, mountain writers who think they have “got above their raisin” and condescend to their ancestors and their neighbors. Ron Rash, in my opinion, is neither.