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Rash’s Appalachia is both rich and flawed

bookRon Rash’s latest collection of short stories echos a theme that runs through all of his works: an awareness that Appalachia is in transition, that it is becoming something else. Of course, this is a quality that is shared by all things — what the poets call “mutability” — but in this instance, the author is mindful of what our world is becoming in contrast to what it once was. Like the drowned girl in his short story by the same title, Appalachia may be undergoing a “sea change” and will emerge as “something rich and strange.” The substance may be alien, repugnant and/or fascinating.

However, although the world is changing around them, many of the characters in Nothing Gold Can Stay are trapped, victims of forces beyond their control. Tricksters, fools and doomed lovers abound; many owe their origin to prototypes that are found in Chaucer, Grimm and Native American folklore. Rash’s Pied Piper is driving a minibus down the Blue Ridge Parkway; he is freighted with marijuana and “magic tabs,” on his way to San Francisco; Coyote, the trickster, has metamorphosed into Sinkler, the chain gang “trusty” who plots to win the trust of a mountain girl (who has an agenda of her own).

There are “good people,” too: mountain veterinarians who venture out amid deep snows to deliver a breached calf in a distant mountain cove because of a promise made once at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Some of Rash’s struggling dreamers will touch your heart — especially the lovers. Consider Danny and Lisa in “Cherokee,” a young married couple with an overdue truck payment, cutbacks at the cement plant and dwindling funds. Like thousands of others, they harken to the siren call of the big casino in Cherokee. The big billboards glimmer like mirages. Eventually, they gas up the truck for one desperate bid. 

Then, there is Jody and Lauren, the doomed couple in “They Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” is especially tragic since they embody wasted promise. Again, this is a frequent refrain in Rash’s work: Appalachia’s talented, hopeful youth who are entrapped by poverty, biological necessity or naturalistic forces. Jody, lonely and discouraged, is in college. Lauren, who shared Jody’s promise, becomes hopelessly addicted to drugs and is slowly succumbing in an abandoned farmhouse that now contains a meth lab in the basement. When Jody returns from college to rescue her, he knows that their future is at stake: either she goes with him, or he joins her in the old “haunted” farmhouse.

There are other responses to entrapment in Nothing Gold Can Stay. Amy, the mentally and physically disfigured protagonist of “Nighthawks,” finds solace in becoming a nighttime DJ at the local radio station, a job that allows her to interact with other people without any direct contact with them. She is a “nighthawk” (like the customers in Edward Hopper’s midnight cafe) ... solitary, gainfully employed and finally ... needed. Then, there is the nameless woman in “The Woman at the Pond,” a poignant figure who may represent multitudes. Abused, trapped in a loveless marriage and perceiving the future as hopeless, she chooses to slip over the side of a boat with a cinderblock tied to her arm. This story has a disturbing element. It may be that the narrator could have saved her.

However, there is little to admire about the unnamed narrator and his buddy, Donnie, in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Rendered stupid by pills and beer, these two young men spend their days trolling the countryside looking for part-time work or an opportunity to steal something that can be bartered in Asheville. They meet an old WWII veteran with a jar full of gold teeth, a souvenir of from a brutal battle in the South Seas. The old man ruefully notes that after the experience, he had to “learn to be a human being again.” Donnie is fascinated. How much would those teeth bring in an Asheville pawn shop?

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Rash frequently acknowledges the old scars and lingering pain — mute evidence of the Civil War. There are still bitter memories, like the rope that hangs in a farmer’s barn in “Where the Map Ends” — a place where two escaped slaves experience an encounter that has much to do with loss and retribution. In like manner, a grievance that had its birth in a 17th century Scottish ballad finally finds a kind of belated justice in “A Servant of History.” When an erstwhile ballad collector finds himself in an Appalachian cove recording “The Snows of Glencoe” from the lips of an ancient beldame, he belatedly discovers that he has become an unwitting instrument of justice.

There is humor, of course, a bit dark perhaps, but humor nonetheless. In “A Sort of Miracle,” Rash gives the reader another heedless fool who yearns for undeserved wealth. Denton is not plagued by debts nor does he need funds to improve his education. Watching TV, he has learned that the paws and gallbladders of black bears are valuable, and he begins to develop a scheme. Why not buy a ham at the grocery store, drive deep into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tie the ham to a tree limb and set a trap. What could be easier? After waiting a few days, Denton, accompanied by his wife’s teenage brothers, Baroque and Marlboro (visiting from Florida), decides to claim his prize. In some ways, “A Sort of Miracle” reads like a parody of “Something Rich and Strange.” Alas, poor Denton! He too, is destined to undergo a transformation.

This is a marvelous collection. Like a gifted musician in a midnight speakeasy, Rash glides from muted love songs to funeral hymns to bold marches soulful ballads. They are all here then, the people of Appalachia. Foolish, flawed, vain and callow. Many of them elicit empathy, for they are all mortal and foolish. They are like Chaucer’s pilgrims or Christian’s fellow travelers in Pilgrim’s Progress. However, unlike the indomitable Christian, they will sink in the muck of the Slough of Despond and vanish, or they will go charging off  in pursuit of phantasms and mirages ... perhaps not of the Celestial City, but ... a Cherokee casino.  

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