Four years ago, when Western Carolina professor Ron Rash published Serena, his stunning novel of greed and murder in early-20th century North Carolina's timber industry, I wrote, "If he can avoid the publishing world's penchant for labeling any author who's born below Maryland a mere 'Southern writer,' with all of that term's implied limitations, Rash should now take his place in the pantheon of the finest contemporary American novelists." That has largely happened. Rash's books are now routinely reviewed (and nearly universally praised) in national literary publications, and in perhaps a better sign of contemporary success, Serena is being made into a Hollywood film with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, tentatively scheduled for release in September.
Rash has now released a powerful new collection of short stories that has already garnered praise in the New York Times and the Boston Globe as one of his very best books — a verdict I agree with. Nothing Gold Can Stay's stories are narrowly grounded in Rash's stomping grounds, southern Appalachia, but the book's scope sweeps broadly from the Civil War to the 1920s, the 1960s and the present. The wide range of characters and situations evinces regional changes over time, but also reveals how the basics of the human heart are the same no matter the date. Stylistically, Rash is the current master of capturing Southern speech and idiom, and his approach remains spare yet lyrical and straightforward; more straightforward, in fact, than many of his characters' actions and motives.
This collection has more fine stories than there's room to write about here, but let's hit some high spots. In the first story, "The Trusty," a prisoner named Sinkler is sent to procure water for his chain gang; he approaches a house where a shy, mistrustful young woman lives with her older husband. He senses her unhappiness and starts concocting a plan for the woman and he to escape together. Things get sketchy and eventually dangerous. In "The Trusty," as in others in this book, it's hard for the characters to know whether to believe anyone. I won't spoil the ending other than to say it's shocking.
The story titled "The Magic Bus," a reference to an early song by The Who, presents a traveling hippie couple that stops near the home of a young mountain woman who's itching to expand her choices in life. Their meeting doesn't go as anyone expects, and offers Rash a chance to portray the ways the 1960s' counterculture went awry.
The mesmerizing "Something Rich and Strange" is about a girl on a family picnic who walks into a river and is swept away. A diver is brought in to pull her body free from under a waterfall, but he discovers the girl oddly at peace ("In the undercut all remained quiet and still, the girl's transformation unrushed, gentle."). Rash produces an austere, violent beauty here that's unlike anything I've read in quite some time.
Humor, albeit of the ironic and dark variety, pops up in unexpected places in Nothing Gold Can Stay, too. In "A Sort of Miracle," a pair of doltish slackers mooch off a brother-in-law while watching hours of medical TV shows. Soon enough, Denton, the brother-in-law, has sexual problems with his wife because of the brothers' ongoing presence. The hapless pair get a chance to use their newfound medical expertise when a search in the Great Smokies for a natural aphrodisiac for Denton — the paws and gall bladder of a bear — goes cockeyed. The aftereffect of their quest is both ghastly and hysterically funny.
Overall, Nothing Gold Can Stay is a deep and riveting collection, the best writing Ron Rash has produced since Serena. And that's saying something.
(Ron Rash is this year's Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Lecturer for Sensoria, the annual celebration of the arts at CPCC. Sensoria will run April 12-20. Rash will speak at two free public events on Wednesday, April 17: 10:30 a.m. at Halton Theater and 7 p.m. at Pease Auditorium. Call 704-330-6122 or go to sensoria.cpcc.edu for details.)