Short stories show Appalachia’s raw underside

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2013 

  • Fiction Nothing Gold Can Stay Ron Rash

    Harper Collins, 256 pages

  • Meet the author

    Where: Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

    When: 7 p.m. Monday

  • Meet the author •  Flyleaf Books

    752 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill

    7 p.m. Wednesday

    •  Quail Ridge Books

    3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh

    7:30 p.m. Thursday

In his new collection of 14 short stories, Ron Rash stunningly renders his native Appalachia as an exotic planetoid governed by its own peculiar orbital laws.

Gentle reader, be forewarned: This is not the Disneyland version of the Appalachian Mountains, tricked out in travel magazines and economic development brochures.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” spans about 150 years of Southern history and depicts an unvarnished Appalachia of self-mutilators, meth heads, antisocial loners, hapless lovers, fugitive slaves, wily conmen, doomed vacationers and breached calves.

In these pages, penetrating the soul of Appalachia is more akin to navigating the Khyber Pass or negotiating Province Qinghai.

Some clueless outsiders, like the stoned hippies passing through the Blue Ridge Parkway in their “magic bus,” desecrate and destroy. Another hapless interloper, an English folklorist traversing Jackson County in search of Elizabethan ballads, departs speechless, his tongue branded by locals for violating norms he can’t comprehend.

Rash was raised in Boiling Springs, about an hour west of Charlotte, and his family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700s. A poet and professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, Rash is a fast-rising superstar in the North Carolina literary constellation that includes such luminaries as Michael Parker, Clyde Edgerton and Phillip Gerard.

Rash’s novel, “Serena,” is being made into a movie that will star Jennifer Lawrence. A two-time PEN/Faulkner finalist, he has garnered a heap of literary awards. The stories in this new collection originally appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Southern Review, among other high-profile venues.

Rash’s noirish settings and doomed characters lend his sketches a “high lonesome” tone – of broken relationships, shattered dreams and night shifts at the factory – prevalent in the region’s rich musical heritage. The same world-weary characters who pine, struggle and self-destruct in old-time mountain songs reappear in Rash’s stories under literary guise.

But they’re no less authentic here, notwithstanding the literary trappings. This is a deterministic universe where history and culture trump financial aid application forms and other bootstrap formulas. This, Rash insinuates, is as real as it gets; all else is counterfeit.

The notion that we don’t shape our destiny, but rather that our destiny shapes us is the underlying premise in Rash’s stories. We have arrived at the accursed land beyond the reach of the New South.

But all this philosophizing about human nature would be mere academic pedantry if not for Rash’s masterful storytelling.

Among the strongest offerings in this collection is “The Dowry,” a set-piece depicting the emotional aftermath of the Civil War. The dialogue stands out for its formalistic, archaic quality, proving Rash a master ventriloquist.

Not to give away the surprise ending, but the dowry in question is anatomical: It must be surgically removed by a learned doctor who is appalled by a pastor’s request that he saw off a perfectly good hand.

“I can’t believe I’ve allowed you to talk me into this barbarism, and for no other reason than some bundles of papyrus written thousands of years ago,” the good doctor says. “ we may as well be living in mud huts, grinding rocks to make fire.”

“A Sort of Miracle,” set in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, chronicles the ill-fated quest for a folk cure to treat a sexual dysfunction. This is North Carolina’s version of the movie “Fargo,” a black comedy in which comic ineptitude leads to tragic results.

Rash tastefully spares readers of gruesome dismemberment scenes, but he does drop an allusion – as if hinting at stage directions to set the right cinematic mood – to “movies where maniacs hacked people to death.” Film rights can’t be too far behind.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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