In the fictional Appalachian town at the center of “Above the Waterfall,” a novel by Ron Rash, crystal meth has ravaged the community.
One grieving mother burns all of her daughter’s photos after the drug-addicted young woman steals the family’s valuables. Then, during a particularly gruesome drug bust, the town’s deputy promptly quits his job, leaving the soon-to-retire sheriff short-handed.
“The worst thing was finding a child inside,” Rash writes. “You’d approach the house or trailer lots of time not knowing. Then you’d see a toy or baby food jar and get a knot in the belly. Things normally associated with happiness, like a teddy bear or pacifier, became ominous as headlights beaming up from a lake.”
This haunting backdrop of addiction and despair fuels the drama in Rash’s beautifully tragic story. Told by Les, the sheriff, and Becky, a park superintendent and traumatized school-shooting survivor, much of the narrative centers on Gerald, a local curmudgeon who is accused of poisoning a trout stream on someone else’s property.
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The characters’ intense connection to the land makes this crime seem all the more heinous. Naturally, Gerald denies his involvement, insisting he’s been framed — and Becky, who shares a close relationship with the old man, is the only one who believes him, citing Gerald’s fondness for the speckled trout that were killed.
“Gerald didn’t do this,” Becky tells Les. “Those speckled trout, Gerald didn’t want to catch them to eat. He wanted them just to be there, and to stay there … the way Gerald looked at those speckled trout, Les, he loved them.”
Enhanced by Rash’s lyrical prose, this fascination with the land occasionally forces readers to pause and appreciate the beauty of Rash’s language like they would a flower or a sunset. Mostly experienced through Becky’s point of view, the book’s poetic observations feel almost escapist, the mental gymnastics of a woman who desires a different reality.
“Becky’s shoulders hunched slightly, hands linked in front of her, as if even after three decades, just the mention of a school shooting caused her to make herself a smaller target,” Les observes. “A kingfisher crossed low overhead and Becky watched it, though watching didn’t seem the right word for how intently she followed the bird’s flight.”
Slowly, Rash draws connections between disparate characters’ lives, and the pieces of the mystery fall into place; as Les says, the best way to solve a problem is “to let it believe you were busy with something else, replacing a burned-out porch light, fixing a leaky faucet. The solution would edge on out and you’d see it clear.”
But in Rash’s world of addiction and deceit, even solving a problem does not mean all is well. Though some issues get resolved, for many of these characters, we’re left with a sense of foreboding that the worst is yet to come.
“Above the Waterfall” by Ron Rash (272 pages; Ecco; $26.99)