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Rash takes care of business in ‘The Caretaker’

Rash takes care of business in ‘The Caretaker’

Ron Rash’s new novel “The Caretaker” (Doubleday, 2023, 252 pgs.) is much different than his previous novels.

The classic Rash literary style is there and the characters are well developed and the descriptive passages are vividly enticing. But ... there is a difference in the tone. In intention. In the consciousness. In the amount of light he sheds on his characters and their actions. Or, as he writes about one of the book’s main characters Blackburn Gant: “Blackburn imagines fields asleep beneath a veil of snow. Awaiting spring, awaiting him too, because he will be there, standing firm on broken ground to witness life rising into the light.”

In his earlier years and books, Rash was known for his dramatic and even unexpected violent endings — such as in “The Cove” and in “Serena.” But he’s mellowed in his elder years and so what we get in “The Caretaker” is a love story embedded in a family drama.

“... Shouldn’t this life have its share of joy too? Or was that just more childishness? Lila was wrong about Naomi only glimpsing love. The heart’s full knowing came only with loss. Lila didn’t understand that. If she was lucky, she might never have to,” writes Rash, referring to one of the main plotlines — that of Naomi’s young husband Jacob having been sent to Korea to fight in the Korean War. The majority of this book is set in Watauga County, and in particular, Blowing Rock, a place that Rash knows well from his youth. From early on, we get heartbreak and headache as Jacob is presumed dead and Naomi is sent packing to Tennessee by Jacob’s manipulating and disapproving parents.

So, the plotline develops from a ruse by the parents to separate Jacob from his new bride, who has become pregnant with child while Jacob is away fighting the war. In a brilliant bit of back and forth by Rash, the ruse turns into reality and, as they say, the plot thickens — with both Jacob and Naomi thinking that the other is dead, as the parents plot to annul the marriage any way they can working to apparent perfection.

But Rash has tricks up his sleeve, which soon come to the fore in the person of Blackburn Gant, Jacob’s longtime and loyal friend, who, as time passes along the roadmap of this story, is the caretaker of the local cemetery as he morphs into the book’s main character. But Rash isn’t a one-trick pony or a one-pitch pitcher. He’s got a curveball that comes unexpected and that no one, no reader, can hit. Unlike his “sinker,” this curve takes us out of the dark alleys of the human mind and into the sunlight. To creeks, lakes and ridgetop vistas in northwestern North Carolina that are familial and familiar to Rash and that he writes about with accurate detail and perceivable passion:

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“On the night before Naomi was to take the bus back to Tennessee, she and Jacob had parked at the Brown Mountain overlook. Boys liked to take girls there because people claimed you could see the lanterns of ghosts searching for a woman murdered long ago. A place to get a girl to snuggle close.”

 With Blackburn “pitching” and a full count with 3 balls and 2 strikes on Jacob, Rash’s curveball misses the plate and Jacob gets a walk to first base. It’s the ninth inning and Blackburn’s arm is getting tired, but before we know it there are two outs and Jacob is standing on third base. And who should come to bat, but Naomi, whom everyone thought has died in childbirth and was done for the season. The whole game is riding on her at-bat. Can she get a hit so Jacob can score and they’ll win the game? You’ll have to tune in to see, as Rash isn’t going to take himself out of the game or give away any spoilers.

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of  the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)

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