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Discovering Gold in the Back of Beyond: The Fiction of Ron Rash

ISSUE:  Summer 2013

Nothing Gold Can Stay. By Ron Rash. Ecco, 2013. 256p. HB, $24.99.The title of Ron Rash’s compelling new collection of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay, comes from Robert Frost’s evocative poem pondering the bittersweet knowledge of life’s impermanence. The poet marvels at the brief radiance of a forest’s first spring leaves, knowing full well that its dimming has already begun: “Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.” And so, too, in Rash’s fictional southern Appalachia, where any glimpse of a pastoral idyll is fleeting, if not completely fanciful, the forces of history and time are always emerging to shatter dreams of unchanging simplicity. While some of Rash’s characters, particularly those living deep in the backwoods, far from the madding crowd (Rash is a Thomas Hardy enthusiast), might have “one foot in Eden” (as the title of one of his novels puts it), their other foot is placed squarely in the world of woe and suffering, a world shaped not only by large-​scale social and economic forces but also by evils lurking in the recesses of the human heart. A phrase Rash sometimes uses to locate his fictional territory, “the back of beyond,” suggests both the allures and the dangers of this country.

“The back of beyond” is also a good way more generally to describe southern Appalachia’s representation in the American cultural imagination. If we think of the South, with its distinctive folkways, traditions, and history, as somehow “beyond” America, then southern Appalachia is beyond even that. Largely because the region remained isolated for so long, seemingly tucked away in a timeless zone where the march of history rarely intruded, the folk of the southern mountains often came to be seen by the rest of America (including Southerners) as somehow pure and undefiled, though interpretations of that purity have differed wildly. According to some cultural legends, for instance, mountain folk were the largely unchanged remnants of original European settlers, living by the same customs and speaking with the same language as their Elizabethan forebears. By other legends, mountain folk were degraded by their isolation, devolving through inbreeding and poor living conditions into deformed and monstrous creatures, not all that different from the zombies of the television series The Walking Dead, who might be understood as descendants of the backwoods rapists in John Boorman’s film version of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance. In other words, The Walking Dead works as an allegory of what happens when hill people descend in large numbers upon Atlanta, The Beverly Hillbillies reimagined as apocalyptic nightmare.

Because southern Appalachia is perceived as so bizarrely different from the rest of America, literature about the region, particularly by outlanders, has characteristically focused on the dichotomy between the civilized and uncivilized, typically in narratives of urbane travelers making their way through the strange country. Not unexpectedly, as writers from the mountains developed their own literary traditions, mountain culture was represented more richly and complexly, often through the interrogation and revision of stereotypes. Joining a long line of Appalachian writers who have done this sort of cultural revisioning (for instance, among others, Grace Lumpkin, Jesse Stuart, Harriet Arnow, and Jayne Anne Phillips), Rash in his literature suggests that whatever its cultural distinctiveness, the faraway country of Appalachia is actually not that far away, at least in terms of everyday matters and human struggles. As a character in Rash’s novel Saints at the River (2004) puts it, to drive from Columbia to the northwest mountains of South Carolina, despite this area being known as the state’s “dark corner,” is not a plunge into “the heart of darkness. It’s four hours away, not four centuries.” 

On a broad level, all of Rash’s work (five novels, five books of short stories, four books of poetry) derives from this insight, and from it Rash weaves a complex tapestry of mountain life, often by invoking and then complicating—​and thus humanizing—​hill country stereotypes. While some of the stories of Nothing Gold Can Stay work along these lines, others point to Rash’s ongoing development as a writer who is more comfortable with probing mountain life without being overly concerned with refuting the popular images of life there. As he often does with his story collections, Rash groups these new stories into sections that are broadly linked by theme, and for the most part it is the second section that contains stories most focused on reworking stereotypes. These stories, with one exception, are not among the strongest of this superb collection; while expertly crafted and engaging, they don’t end up immersing us, as many of the other stories in the book do, in the profound, deep mysteries that lie within the human heart and the natural world.

All of the stories in the second section, in one way or another, work with the opposition that has characteristically shaped frontier literature: the clash between “uncivilized,” down-​to-​earth locals and “civilized,” gentrified outsiders. It’s not hard to guess who gets their comeuppance. The section’s first story, “A Servant of History,” is the most obvious example of this narrative mode. In it, we follow the exploits of a foppish British traveler in 1922, as he attempts to chronicle the survival of Elizabethan language and ballads among the mountain folk. One of the traveler’s motives, we learn, is to show up his former university professors by demonstrating to them “that history was more than their ossified blather.” It’s clear from the beginning that it is the traveler himself who blathers, which leads him into comic confrontations with the more straightforward hill folk. In the end, a mountain family teaches the visitor rather painfully exactly how powerfully history and tradition live on in mountain people.

Other stories from the second section more complexly reconfigure the insider/outsider opposition. In “Twenty-​Six Days,” a working-​class couple worries about the safe return of their daughter at war in Afghanistan. Their humanity visibly overshadows that of a callous university professor, who has this to say about another professor’s offering the father, a custodian, books to send to his daughter: “Nadia doesn’t realize that he’ll just turn around and sell them, but better the flea market than the outhouse.” Another story, “A Sort of Miracle,” makes it clear that those city folk from the mountain region who are untrained in backwoods ways can be just as stupid as the stupidest of outsiders when they strike out into the woods. 

The jewel of the book’s second section is “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven.” Drugs, particularly methamphetamine and oxycodone, have for some time been working their destruction upon mountain folk and culture, and in this story Rash makes this devastation blindingly clear in the lives of several youths. It’s a classic coming-​of-​age story with a frightening twist. A young college student named Jody, returning home on summer break, finds his old girlfriend a wreck of her former self, hooked on meth and living in an abandoned house with several of his old friends, now also addicts. He knows where his friends’ lives are headed, imagining “a breed of meth heads evolving to veins and nose and mouth, just enough flesh on bone to keep the passageways open.” He pleads with his old girlfriend to leave but is quickly rejected. And then comes the twist that leaves the reader stunned and haunted: After leaving the meth house to collect his thoughts, thinking back on his youth and his old friendships, the young man decides not to return to college but to return to the meth house—​not to take his old girlfriend away but to join her there. “Turn on the fire,” says one of the meth addicts, in the story’s final words, when the youth casts his lot with the group. “This boy’s been a long time out in the cold.”

The ending of “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” puts a haunting twist on a plot pattern often found in stories of small-​town life: the return of the departed figure who has discovered that what most matters is being home again, grounded and reconnected. It’s a shocking, disorienting ending, one that forces the reader to ponder the fundamental values by which we guide our lives. While terrifyingly self-​destructive, Jody’s decision, from another angle, is heartbreakingly affirmative, a decision to return to those whom he loves and cares about, and those whom everyone else has abandoned (a point underscored throughout the story). The ending opens us to the fact that even in the most rational of people there always lurks a mysterious, dangerous, and appealing irrationality, an irrationality which for all its hazards is the deepest source of love and commitment.

“Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” is one of the collection’s finest stories, and its form and content point us to the best stories from the other sections. Stories from the first section focus broadly on matters of commitment and betrayal, and most move forward, fraught with suspense, to surprising and unsettling endings that push toward, and sometimes into, the mysterious. One of the simplest, but nonetheless most moving, stories is “Something Rich and Strange,” whose title itself suggests what Rash achieves in his finest work. Beginning with a remarkably vivid and moving description of a girl’s drowning (drawn from his novel Saints at the River), the story quietly becomes even more astonishing as it follows a diver’s encounter with the body, which remains trapped in the river. The diver senses that the girl’s body is somehow still alive and that she has looked knowingly at him. He cannot get the experience out of his mind, and in one of his many dreams about her drowning, she whispers to him “that this world was better than the one above and she should never have been afraid.” Whatever the truth of the diver’s visions, he now lives under their sway and in another world—​the world of the drowned girl. His eyes have been opened to nature’s stunning beauty and humanity’s place within its mysteries. His is now a life of wonder. While that’s all fine and perhaps even inspiring, what the story makes clear, in a turn that adds depths to its complexity, is that some serious problems await the diver. His visionary eyes, turned searchingly both outward into nature and inward into himself, take no notice of everyday life; the diver is blind to his responsibilities as spouse and schoolteacher (his regular job). The dilemma facing the diver, of how to reorient himself following this life-​altering event, remains at the end of the story troubling and unresolved.

The disquieting and effective endings of “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” and “Something Rich and Strange” call to mind the dilemmas and heartbreak facing many of the characters in Nothing Gold Can Stay. In the title story, for instance, Mr. Ponder, a World War II veteran, has never been entirely able to come to terms with the horrifying acts he committed as a combatant. “On them islands you weren’t even a man anymore,” he tells two boys, Donnie and the unnamed narrator. “It’s a wonder any of us could come back and be human again.” To keep himself from forgetting the depths to which he had sunk, Ponder has kept the many gold teeth he had pried from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. Paralleling Ponder’s descent into incomprehensible violence is the later descent into drugs by Donnie and the narrator, particularly their decision to rob Ponder of the gold teeth. In fact, when Donnie discovers Ponder dead, he also steals his dental bridge for its gold. While Donnie keeps talking about all the fun things they’ll do after they cash in—​fantasizing of returning to the golden days of their boyhood, the lazy days of fishing and simple fellowship—​the narrator knows the fantasy will never be anything but just that. At least until the oxycodone kicks in, the narrator is haunted by the dark turn his life has taken and by the life that he has irrevocably left behind. Unlike Ponder, who faced up to, even if he never fully understood, his inhumanity, the narrator ultimately flees from responsibility and atonement, the bitterness of self-​realization obliterated by the bitterness of the dissolving pill in his mouth. 

At the end of “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Donnie and the narrator are stoned and headed for a night of fun in Asheville, seeking through drugs to live in an eternal present, freed from any connections to the past and its obligations—​what the narrator, in the story’s final words, designates so tellingly as “that other world.” In Rash’s fiction, and indeed with many writers from the South, efforts to escape the past, whether through drugs, misguided thinking, or something else, are delusional and dangerous, a giant step on the downward path toward self-​destruction. The most villainous character Rash has yet created, the monomaniacal and power-​obsessed Serena (from the novel bearing her name), strives to live precisely this way. “This is what we want,” she tells her husband. “To be like this. No past or future, pure enough to live totally in the present.” Serena’s effort to distill her life into the moment is suggested early in the novel, when she reveals that upon moving away from her childhood home, she had ordered that the house, with everything in it, be burned to the ground. What family? What house? They’re all obliterated, literally and within her thoughts. From destroying a house to destroying the environment (she and her husband head up a logging enterprise) to destroying people are easy jumps for Serena; before long, everyone in the logging camp knows that to cross Serena means certain death, an expeditious expunging from her world.

Those characters in Rash’s fiction who live otherwise, who recognize that one never can escape the past and the obligations one owes to family and community, stand invariably as the author’s heroes. But as in “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” the opposition between individual freedom and social responsibility is rarely simple and straightforward, as the demands of the community can at times be so burdensome as to be destructive. A number of the stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay, including most of those in Part III, focus on this opposition, exploring the struggles of well-​intentioned characters seeking ways to balance individual needs and societal demands. In one story, a pastor who had refused to take a stand publicly during the Civil War seeks to right what he now sees as his failure to act responsibly; in another, a man returns to the place where he fears he might long ago have been partially responsible for a person’s death. But it is “The Magic Bus” that most clearly illustrates the difficulties of successfully negotiating conflicting demands of individual freedom and community responsibility. Set during the late sixties or early seventies, the story portrays a teenager who, feeling desperately isolated and lonely, yearns for a life beyond the family farm. She has her chance to flee when two hippies, whose bus has broken down by the farm, invite her to come with them to San Francisco—​an invitation right out of her dreams. While she eventually makes the decision that the story makes clear is the right one—​to remain with her family—​her decision nonetheless solves nothing in terms of her yearning, and in fact seems to make her situation even more desperate. Staying at home, the story suggests, is less an affirmation than the woman’s realization that she has no idea where else she could go. 

Perhaps it is only with age and experience that a person can achieve the sort of sustaining equilibrium that Rash’s fiction seems to endorse, a conclusion one could certainly draw from the magnificent story, “Three a.m. and the Stars Were Out,” that closes Nothing Gold Can Stay. The story resonates with almost all of the tensions and problems evoked in the other stories, and in a moving ending quietly brings them to rest. At the center of the story is a vow that two friends had made during the Korean War when they had feared they would never survive the fighting: If they got home to North Carolina, they would stay put and always be there for each other. Through all the changes, challenges, and losses in their lives, they have kept true to their word. After a long night’s ordeal of helping with a calf’s birth, the two men reflect upon their experiences and their growing old—​and their commitment to each other, the one thing, other than the night sky, that has never changed. In a beautiful image concluding the story, one of the men, as he drives away, looks back and sees his friend holding a lantern before his barn; he knows that the man holding the light has always been looking out for him, “attentive as any good sentry.”

With this final story, Rash suggests that amidst the ravages of time there is in fact something gold that can stay—​the enduring bonds of friendship and love. There is nothing trite or sentimental about this conclusion—​we already know, both from this story and the others in the collection, how much people suffer in their lives, even in the best of times. And we also know that eventually even the bonds of friendship and love must come undone, as the seasons continue their turning and people pass away. But until that time, this wise and wonderful collection tells us, we can stay true to our loyalties and keep watch over our loved ones. “So Eden sank to grief,” the poet tells us, but as Rash also shows us, amidst all the loss, there is still much joy and dignity—​much gold—​to be discovered and cherished.


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