In these stories, the mountain folk have to deal with divorce, the breakup of families, and, in general, the steady erosion of a way of life that was hard but had a wholeness to it. Ron Rash is capturing this moment of transformation and making it into art.
There are a few Southern writers who are coming to the fore of a new generation. In this group I would include Daniel Wallace, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin, William Gay, Sena Jeter Naslund, and now, absolutely, Ron Rash. These are the great-grandchildren of Faulkner, dealing with cultural and economic changes not dreamed of in the South of the twenties.
Rash's career had moved slowly and by most unseen for a number of years. He published three volumes of poetry and two of short fiction before blasting into fame with three novels: One Foot in Eden, (2004), Saints at the River (2005), and The World Made Straight (2007). Now he is clearly a major voice, especially among the voices telling of twenty-first century life in Appalachia: Lee Smith, Silas House, and a few others.
This volume, Chemistry, is short fiction, but the reviewer is spared from having to say what usually must be said in a review of short fiction. All these stories are first-rate, not just some. Ron Rash, now teaching at Western Carolina, will take in all the prizes there are.
Appalachia has been for centuries a separate and different place, and in some ways still is, but, alas, modernity, often in the form of drugs, creeps into every hamlet not matter how isolated. "Deep Gap" explores the pain of a father whose son is an addict. The boy, Brad, is headed to prison or the morgue and his dad is desperate to save him. He makes the boy a final, loving offer: he will kill them both, homicide then suicide, to end the horror. He means it. And it works.
Great first lines are a huge asset to short story writers. Here is the first line of "Dangerous Love": "When Ricky threw his knife and the blade tore my blouse and cut into flesh eight inches from my heart, it was certain as the blood trickling down my arm that something in our relationship had gone wrong."
It so happens that Ellie and Ricky have a sideshow act in a carnival, but still, something is very wrong.
"Pemberton's Bride" begins, "When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after four months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. She was accompanied by her father . . . who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning."
There is no way to stop reading this story, and Pemberton's bride turns out to be, in fact, a cold-blooded witch who can train eagles to catch rattlesnakes.
Life in the mountains is often raw, hard, bloody. "Not Waving But Drowning" begins in an emergency room with these lines: "Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand. She stares at them as if they were a bad throw of the dice. The man who brought her through the emergency room door leans his cheek against her swollen face. 'You know I love you,' he whispers."
Rash's people are mostly farmers and mechanics, people in work clothes with not too many options or opportunities. Some few, however, are taking the first steps up?not out, necessarily, but up?through education. This sometimes creates a sense of alienation and guilt larger than the miseries of exhausting work. The dad in "Deep Gap," for example, wonders if his son would have stayed straight if he hadn't gone off to that flesh pot, Charlotte.
But the drug dealers and marijuana fields are in rural America now. There is no hiding place. In these stories, the mountain folk have to deal with divorce, the breakup of families, and, in general, the steady erosion of a way of life that was hard but had a wholeness to it. Ron Rash is capturing this moment of transformation and making it into art.