Don Noble
3:04 pm
Mon January 15, 2007

The World Made Straight

Ron Rash is an accomplished poet, and his descriptions of the mountains, the laurel, the creeks and trout, the sky and atmosphere of the Smokies are beautiful, but these people are held in place not by the beauty of the land, but by the magnetic pull of their ancestors' bones and blood.

The year is 1978. Travis Shelton, a seventeen-year-old high school dropout with no plans for the future, needs to pay the insurance on his '66 Ford truck. Travis is an excellent fisherman, and he has waded up a creek in the mountains near Asheville, NC, to catch speckled trout to sell to Old Man Jenkins for fifty cents apiece. The very first sentence of this novel tells you how it will go: "Travis came upon the marijuana while fishing."

Travis cuts down and steals five mature plants and sells them to a dope dealer for fifty dollars. He throws away the trout. A few days later, he does it again, and then, as the reader is practically begging him not to, he goes back a third time and is caught in a bear trap by the mountain men/rednecks who are growing the pot.

These characters, Carlton Toomey and his son, Hubert, are terrifying and complicated. Carlton, the old man, is a vicious, cold-blooded, pragmatic creature who slices through Travis' Achilles tendon, just to teach him a lesson. Carlton is a little wistful about having to perform this mutilation. "Coming back here a second time took some guts . . . I'd have let it go, just for the feistiness of your doing it. But coming a third time was downright stupid, and greedy."

Toomey is also something of a chameleon. Three hundred pounds, he prefers for people to think he's ignorant, but he can speed through the crossword puzzle, speak perfectly grammatical English when he wants to, and, at the county fair, sing gospel tunes with the voice of an angel.

His son is a simpler matter. Hubert, according to local lore, has been away in the Marine Corps, or prison, or both, and is as vicious in a hot way as his father is in a cold way.

A sensible person would want nothing to do with either one.

Dennis Covington and others are fond of saying that the Appalachian poor white is the last minority in American whom it's all right to denigrate, and that we should never use the word "trash." These Toomeys, however, are not simply trash. They are fear-inspiring. Before the novel is over, it becomes clear they have paid off the sheriff and are virtually immune from arrest, that they sell Quaaludes and amphetamines as well as pot, and that they engage in the white slave business.

Not all the mountain men in this novel are vile. Leonard Shuler is an ex-high-school teacher, a bright boy who got out of the mountains, graduated from Chapel Hill, but got fired and is now back home, as a sometime dope dealer.

Leonard sees some potential, something of himself in Travis. He helps him get a GED and fosters his interest in the Civil War as it raged in Madison County, NC, where the war was at its worst, with neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, brother against brother. In one emblematic scene, reminiscent of James Dickey's poem "Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek," Leonard and Travis move with a metal detector over an old killing ground, the battle of Shelton Laurel.

Although Leonard has failed to get clear of this patch of mountains, he tries hard to help Travis get out, but the odds are long. The proud folks of Appalachia mostly keep on doing what they have been doing. There is actually a phenomenon, I am told, which one might called Appalachian syndrome?the inability to live elsewhere, lest one be looked down on or misunderstood..

Ron Rash is an accomplished poet, and his descriptions of the mountains, the laurel, the creeks and trout, the sky and atmosphere of the Smokies are beautiful, but these people are held in place not by the beauty of the land, but by the magnetic pull of their ancestors' bones and blood.

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