A heroine for all times

Novelist, poet and Western Carolina University professor Ron Rash has created a home-grown wonder: His fourth novel, "Serena," aims for a distant target and hits it.

Books nowadays aim for readership. Let me sell 25,000 copies minimum, you can hear them screaming from cover to cover, because my author has a publisher to satisfy!

By contrast, Rash's first novel, "One Foot in Eden," as the winner of the Charlotte Public Library's Novello Festival Press contest, began with a print run of about 10 percent of that figure. He is not out for blockbusters, but for excellence.

So it should come as no surprise that "Serena" never screams anything. It just succeeds at being a book that rubs shoulders with the best of American literature, and yet because of its longer perspective goes them one better.

The title character is a tall, blond capitalist married to another capitalist, Pemberton. They unleash their limitless ambitions on the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina where, on the eve of the Depression, they establish a timber-cutting concern that incarnates ruthlessness.

Jack London's work comes to mind, specifically his South Seas short stories of the early 20th century in which colonialists carry around Snider and Winchester rifles and behave shamefully toward the inhabitants of coral atolls, all narrated with a devastating omniscience.

London is over the top, as befitted his period. Rash is just as dramatic, but icily in control.

Consider the opening of "Serena": "For a lingering moment, Pemberton allowed himself to appreciate the feel of a weapon well made, the knife's balance and solidity, its blade, hilt, and handle precisely calibrated as the épées he'd fenced with at Harvard."

Pemberton, the muscled young hero, is preparing to duel the father of a young woman he has made pregnant.

Serena is not to be outdone: "Serena turned her gaze and words to the daughter. 'But that's the only one you'll have of his. I'm here now. Any other children he has will be with me.' "

Serena is the character that goes the man-and-dog-oriented London one better. She is an extraordinary creation, who in this pre-feminist age wears "pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat. ... Wilkie stared at Serena like a smitten schoolboy, the fedora pressed against his sternum as if to conceal a heart already captured."

She is a Colorado frontierswoman and influenza epidemic survivor, an embodiment of Nietzsche's attitude toward power and Sartre's attitude toward sentiment.

"My experience," she says, "has been that altruism is invariably a means to conceal one's personal failures."

One has to go back pretty far to find a heroine whose chemistry matches Serena's mixture of greed and philosophy. English majors will see Lady Macbeth, but I thought of Medea, the poison-using proto-feminist who destroys anyone who designs to shame her: " 'Pardon me,'" the camp doctor, Cheney, asks Serena. "I should never have doubted your knowledge of venom."

The form of the novel encourages comparisons with Greek tragedy. The isolated timber camp, some miles outside Waynesville, is a neverland ideal for large personalities and the piling up of logs and bodies. Working conditions in this Depression-scarred landscape are what made OSHA necessary: "A log slipped free of the main cable line and killed a worker, and two days later the skidder's boom swung a fifty-pound metal tong into a man's skull."

There is even a chorus: a quintet of lumberjacks who comment on the Pembertons' Machiavellian business practices and inject lightness into a work that resists sunshine like the deep-set hollows below Mount Mitchell.

Pemberton, too, is a Jason, an outsize character who is nevertheless eclipsed by Serena's moon-big amorality and ambition.

But there is plenty that is Rashian and non-Euripidean here. Start with Rachel, the young woman whose father Pemberton murders. The anti-Serena and driver of the plot, she and Pemberton's child must get along as they can on their own and with the help of a passel of brave and kind people along the way. Rachel elevates "Serena" beyond tragedy into ethical hopefulness. Rash's Appalachians may be clear-cut of trees, but not of virtue.

Indeed, the dominant chord in this book is ethical.

It's no coincidence that Rash names a character Cheney. "Serena" is certainly not an allegory for the last eight years of our nation's history, and it does not read as political, unless you count the mention of biodiversity by the timber-cutting chorus. But it is a stinging rejection of laissez-faire capitalism and the wanton abuse of power with which many have charged the present administration.

"Serena" is what a 21st-century novel can be: a story whose author takes full advantage of the perspective that time offers, without being intimidated by the illustrious literary ancestors time has revealed.