Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash
There’s precious little gold in this new book of short stories by the gifted Appalachian-based poet and storyteller Ron Rash
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Some writers are so good they make it difficult for their peers and even, at times, as in this new book, for themselves. The Appalachian- based US poet and storyteller Ron Rash, long revered as a writer’s writer in his native country, finally earned a wider readership when his wonderful collection Burning Bright won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
All of the stories dazzle, from the first, Hard Times , in which a young child is so hungry that she takes to sucking the eggs from her neighbour’s hen house, and continues to do so even after her father has killed their dog, wrongly blamed for the thefts, to the title story, witDh its echoes of Steinbeck, in which a widow who has married her handyman wonders who is starting the fires blazing in the drought conditions, to a superlative work, The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars , and the concluding Lincolnites , in which a mother defends her child. Burning Bright joined the pantheon of US short- story collections, a heady elite.
Readers were still celebrating that book when Rash consolidated his stature with a brilliant novel, his fifth, The Cove (2012), the story of a brother and sister intent on protecting the family smallholding despite its harsh location. Rash merges the devices of Greek tragedy with those of the European fairy tale, as well as the inevitable betrayals of war, in a masterful narrative. It is therefore hardly surprising that his new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay , arrives to considerable expectation. Rash is well aware that lives are that bit harder in the Appalachian region; he was born in South Carolina and was raised in the north of the state, between Charlotte and Asheville. He is a realist whose use of language shimmers with meaning and intent.
Throughout the stories of Burning Bright are echoes of Daniel Woodrell’s majestic Winter’s Bone (2006). Yet somehow only two of the otherwise heavy-footed stories in this new collection convey similarly daunting conviction. A first reading is disappointing; the second, admittedly within a day, is bewildering. By the eighth story, A Sort of Miracle , featuring two dim-witted brothers and their sister, whose accountant husband, Denton, is heartily weary of his brothers-in-law, Rash is introducing some rare humour. The brothers, Baroque and Marlboro, pass their days watching medical shows and appear to have accumulated snatches of information.
Their zombied physical proximity oppresses the man, who, having married their sister, now feels he is also attached to them. “Denton felt better as soon as he left the truck. Being that close to his brothers-in-law made him feel like a fungus was starting to grow on him. They both had a moldy sort of smell, like mushrooms. Which was no surprise, since Baroque and Marlboro moved about as much as mushrooms. They never left the house, and got up from the couch only to eat or go to the bathroom. Hell, mushrooms probably did more than that. They actually grow. They were finding nutrients, some kind of work was going on down there in the soil.”
Hoping to use a Chinese cure for his sexual problems, Denton sets off to secure the necessary parts from a bear. It does not go well. Nor does the story.
Elsewhere, in The Magic Bus , a teenage girl who is beginning to drift away from the company of her younger brother and her parents falls under the spell of a pair of most unconvincing hippies. Rash fails to evoke any sense of menace, a quality that he has in his previous work summoned so effortlessly.
In the opening story, The Trusty a prisoner working on a chain gang is entrusted to source drinking water for his fellow convicts. His quest brings him to a smallholding where a bored young girl married to a hardworking older man may be sufficiently malleable to engage in sex. It becomes more complicated, and escape appears possible for both of them. The story falls oddly flat, as does the dialogue.
In Something Rich and Strange the influence of Raymond Carver shapes more than the title. A young girl, enjoying an outing with her family, is taken with the idea of swimming in a river that marks the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina; “she wants to wade into the middle and place one foot in Georgia and one in South Carolina so she can tell her friends back in Nebraska she has been in two states at the same time.” The description of the physical setting, overlooked by a granite cliff casting into shadow the part of the river where she stands, is very effective. The girl is caught between wanting to sit in the sun with her family and the tempting glamour promised by her planned feat. “She takes a step and the water rises higher on her knees. Four more steps, she tells herself. Just four more and I’ll turn back.”
But it only takes one more step for her to discover that “the bottom is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream and she does not panic because she has passed the Red Cross courses . . . She tries to hold her breath but her knee smashes against a boulder and she gasps in pain and water pours into her mouth . . . She sees her family running along the shore and she knows they are shouting her name though she cannot hear them.”
The sequence, which continues for almost a page, contains the finest, most compelling writing in the book.
The title story concerns a belated theft that becomes confused with a half-hearted act of vengeance. Told in the first person by the weak-willed accomplice, the narrative falters repeatedly and seldom rises above the predictable.
Its theme of wasted youth and regret is repeated slightly more sympathetically in Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven , in which a boy and girl, Jody and Lauren, appear ready to soar academically above their humble origins. Lauren, who is particularly clever, inexplicably betrays her promise and, with it, her life. It is a melodrama that fails to achieve profundity.
Curiously, Rash’s intention of youthful promise being crushed by experience is far more convincingly served in Night Hawks . Plain and unadorned, free from the need to heap on regional dialect, the narrative observes Ginny, whose teaching career, which she had approached earnestly and without any semblance of natural flair, ends through a tragic accident. She then secures a job as a radio presenter, playing music throughout the night to the lonely. Ginny being Ginny, she talks to the listeners and feeds them educational fragments instead of songs.
As a study of solitude as sanctuary, it is disarming and original and one of the best reasons for reading an unexpectedly earthbound collection by a gifted writer who has written better work vastly superior to this subdued collection.