Ron Rash, New York Times best-selling author of Serena and The Cove, returns to an Appalachian setting in his fifth short-story collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay.
By LIZ COOK
The Kansas City Star
As the title might suggest, the stories often are bleak, the beauty ephemeral. Rashs characters, from Civil War veterans to small-town meth addicts, dont seem to place much stock in luck or redemption.
In Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven, a bright young man is forced to choose between abandoning his meth-addict girlfriend or getting sucked into her downward spiral.
In Twenty-Six Days, a university custodian endures the sneers of white-collar colleagues while he waits for his daughter to return from Afghanistan. In Cherokee, a married couple head to a casino to try to win a pickup truck back from the bank.
Fortune smiles on them that night, but Rash ends the piece on a curiously pessimistic image: the wife leaving the casino, walking toward a man who knows as well as she does that their luck couldnt last.
The world Rash imagines is cold, indifferent and often violent. In The Trusty, the collections remarkable opening story, a smooth-talking prisoner from a chain gang tries to win over an unhappy farmers wife.
The story reads like Rashs own take on Flannery OConnors classic tale, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Both stories feature intelligent crooks and the hard-working farm women they try to swindle. Even the names are similar Rashs characters, Sinkler and Lucy, are hardly a stretch from OConnors Shiftlet and Lucynell.
Unlike OConnors story, Rashs Lucy is not the angel Sinkler makes her out to be. The piece ends with an act of incredible violence, but not the one we expect. It seems a fitting story for the collections opening slot, setting the tone for whats to come. In Rashs world, innocence and purity cant last. Nothing gold can stay.
Rash is at his best chronicling these moments of unexpected power and violence. In the collections other stand-out story, Something Rich and Strange, a rescue diver searches for a drowned girl and becomes haunted by the sight of her trapped beneath a waterfall, eyes wide open. Rash alternates between the divers perspective and the girls in her final moments, leaving the reader with images every bit as haunting and beautiful.
Bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, he writes, and she remembers her sixth-grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room, the smell of chalk dust that morning the teacher held a prism out the window so it might fill with color, and she has a final, beautiful thought that she is now inside that prism and knows something even the teacher does not know.
These stories are chilling and masterful enough to rescue the collection from a cynicism that can, at times, seem hackneyed and cruel. A Sort of Miracle follows two dim-witted brothers, Baroque and Marlboro, who try to save their brother-in-law with tips they picked up from TV medical dramas.
The pairs couch potato buffoonery is uncomplicated and after a few pages, they start to read like parodies of themselves. Rash finishes the story with a good punch line, but its a cruel joke that leaves the reader cold.
The Dowry, a story about a young couple and a Civil War grudge, comes late in the collection and breaks the cycle of pessimism. Pastor Boone, a kind, devoted man, tries to help a former Union soldier and his intended, a Confederate colonels daughter, overcome old prejudices and forge new ties. The story features its own act of horrific violence, but its a nobler act motivated by hope and self-sacrifice.
Rashs stark, evocative prose and razor-sharp feel for the Appalachian landscape and speech rhythms make these characters come alive in scenes of terrible violence and quiet beauty. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a gripping collection, raw and real, that solidifies Rash as a powerful and imaginative storyteller.
Liz Cook is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who is interning this semester at The Star. Reach her at email@example.com.