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Book reviews: Ron Rash's Burning Bright

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Burning Bright by Ron Rash (Ecco, 224 pages, $12.99).

Ron Rash is that rare writer who can capture the emotional feel, attitudes, and ways of seeing of the southern Appalachians. Very few writers have done it well — Lee Smith, John Ehle and Sharon McCrumb come to mind — but from early in his career, Rash confidently waded into those unforgiving waters and never looked back.

Mercifully, Rash is nobody's nostalgia merchant, and depicts contemporary mountain culture as well as he captures its past. In his latest collection of short stories, Burning Bright, now available in paperback, Rash tells tales that range in time from the Civil War to the present day. No matter the timeframe, Rash's stark imagery, driving narratives, and finely drawn personal portraits give life to the kind of conflicted characters — people easing deep longings by flexing their strong wills amid the region's beauty and poverty — that mark much of his other works.

Burning Bright is an especially strong collection, where even the shorter pieces pack a wallop. In "The Ascent," a boy goes for long treks through the mountains to get away from his meth-addicted parents. The parental pair act as if they care for the boy, but when the chips are down, their priorities become as clear as a new glass pipe. Suddenly, that crashed one-engine plane on a nearby mountain seems more appealing to the boy than home. The story itself is simple, but its power is undeniable, emerging from Rash's spare, driven language, planting the reader into a sudden domestic netherworld that's too weirdly devastating for even the adults to handle.

In the title story, Marcie, a middle-aged widow, becomes so consumed by the unexpected passion of her second marriage to a younger man, she ignores warning signs about him in order to preserve her hard-won happiness. A grocery store scene featuring a vicious gossip/checkout clerk is a masterpiece of condensed meanness and threat, setting up Marcie's choice between the malevolent town and her shifty new husband.

As Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Rash certainly knows how to rivet attention." She's referring to the opening lines of one of the strongest stories here, "Dead Confederates": "I never cared for Wesley Davidson when he was alive and seeing him beside me laid out dead didn't much change that." The words draw in the reader with an intensity that doesn't let up till the story's end.

Other stories here are just as strong, including "Falling Star," in which a man feels so endangered by his wife's decision to attend community college that he tries to sabotage her efforts. Rash moves the story along quickly, while probing the region's long history of embarrassment at its own "uneducated" image. Although Rash writes about an ancient region, he is very much a modern writer evincing sophisticated, unsentimental perspectives. It's hard to over-recommend this collection.

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