Serena by Ron Rash (Ecco Press, 384 pages, $24.95).
Blood, greed, history and hubris blend and bump together in powerful, explosive combinations in Ron Rash's new novel, Serena. It's "Macbeth in the Smokies," as timber baron George Pemberton and his beautiful, ruthlessly ambitious bride, Serena, work and scheme to expand their empire in western North Carolina during the Great Depression.
The book's tone is set right from the start. George and his new wife arrive in 1929 Waynesville by train after a long trip from Boston, where the couple was married. On the platform awaits a poor man and his 17-year-old daughter, impregnated by George. Serena emerges from the train and takes the locals by surprise: sporting pants and boots, short "bobbed" hair, no makeup, and at 5-feet-9, taller than the men around her. The backwoods father confronts the pair, Serena reveals her nerves of steel by defying the man, George faces his accuser, a quick knifing ensues, and the pregnant girl is left alone in this world, all by page 9.
The Pembertons, wasting no time on remorse, then begin the difficult work of expanding their timber empire. They negotiate deals with competitors when they can, or ruin them and take their lands when necessary. They supervise the deadly, dangerous work of their crews and foremen; cutting and hauling timber is so deadly, in fact, that camps of would-be laborers, suffering from the effects of the Depression, wait nearby, like hungry vultures, for loggers' accidents to create new job openings.
The Pembertons, gradually driven more and more by Serena's insatiable ambition and thirst for power, scheme to thwart the efforts of a budding conservation movement which, in real life, eventually brought about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Serena proves herself more than the equal of the lumbering (sorry) businessmen around her, riding her vast landholdings on horseback, killing rattlesnakes, overseeing the crews, and at one point saving the life of her husband, on whom her wealth and power depend. More to the point, people who get in the Pembertons' way start falling victim to odd accidents, stray bullets, and mysterious disappearances. Winding his way through the mayhem, and through Rash's masterful mix of violence and natural beauty, is the scary Galloway, an assistant who becomes Serena's confidante and hatchet man.
Meanwhile, the poor girl at the station gives birth to George's child, seeks help from an older woman, and eventually gains George's sympathies, which launches Serena into a jealous rage.
Rash keeps the plot moving rapidly but takes time to drop in some terrific set pieces, including a high-stakes business meeting at Biltmore House in Asheville that captures perfectly the gathering's lush setting and the era's mores -- mores the ruthless Serena is more than willing to upend at the drop of a hat.
One of the novel's most creative surprises is the way Rash lets the members of a timber crew become a kind of Greek chorus throughout the story. These are masterful scenes where the crew members' conversations fill in back stories, describe "off-stage" action, and comment on major characters, while presenting rich, three-dimensional portraits of Appalachian culture. It's a mark of Rash's depth and strength as a writer that these marginal characters are as well-developed and singular as anyone else in the novel.
Serena and George ravage the mountain landscape as mercilessly as they savage their competitors and each other's emotional balance, and their story is as fast, deep and mesmerizing as the N.C. mountains' ancient rivers. Filled with Shakespearean levels of deception, cruelty and mountain-style retribution, Serena gallops to its inevitable searing conclusion, ending with a clever addendum that brings the story full circle.
If he can avoid the publishing world's penchant for labeling any author 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. With Serena, Rash hasn't just created a Southern masterpiece. He's produced a wonderful American novel that addresses old national themes while also speaking to current times in its portrait of modern business greed colliding with a very old land and its inhabitants. Rash has written some very fine novels before this one, and in fact, his rise in literary stature over the past few years has been a delight. Serena, though, made this reader feel as if those books had been mere training for the heavy lifting he performed for this terrific, eminently accessible novel.