Ron Rash: Smoky Mountain darkness: ‘There’s that physical sense of not getting enough light’
The Appalachian writer Ron Rash brings his dark southern tales to the Kilkenny Arts Festival
The stories and novels of the Appalachian writer Ron Rash are steeped in the culture of the American south, but if you’re thinking Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, forget it. Rash’s characters are very much of our time: older farmers who are struggling to make a living, women who are drowning in loneliness, young people who have given in to the temporary comforts of crystal meth. In his most recent volume of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay, the mountains of Carolina create a claustrophobic frame for lives of quiet desperation.
“It’s a darker book than my other books,” Rash says. “There’s a sense that the mountains are trapping these people, that they can’t get away. There’s also that physical sense of not getting enough light. Traditionally, people have not lived on mountain-tops but have had to live in coves and valleys where the water supply is – places where, very often, you only get a few hours of direct sunlight.
“I think what was going on with those stories is that it was an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to capture the zeitgeist of rural America. Right now there’s a real feeling of hopelessness in the US, and particularly in the rural areas, because so many of the young people are going off to fight these wars. There’s very high unemployment. Farming as a way of life in the area where I live is now pretty much gone. And there’s the meth.”
Not to be avoided
If you’re making a mental note to avoid Rash’s work on the grounds of unrelenting bleakness and misery, don’t. The stories in his 2010 collection, Burning Bright, are superbly crafted examples of the genre; his short novel from 2012, The Cove, is close to perfect. Even the dark, angry stories of Nothing Gold Can Stay erupt in moments of dry humour and transcendent beauty. Indeed, the stories in the new collection are more varied, tonally and stylistically, than his earlier work.
What links them is something the author himself describes as resonance. “There seems to be some thread that works from one to the other,” he says. “There are faint echoes. And I would hope that goes through all of my work. I see all of my work as very much like a quilt. They’re different patches, but ultimately they’re all connected.”
The final story in Nothing Gold Can Stay literally shines a light on two old guys – one a farmer, the other a veterinarian – as they help a sheep to give birth in the wee hours. The piece has the focussed intensity of a Rembrandt painting: the tiny figures, the massive landscape, the pressing darkness. “That’s an important story in that book,” Rash says. “As I said, it’s a very dark book but I would like to think that some more light comes in toward the end. And there’s a line in there, ‘There’s a wonder to it yet’. That, to me, is the crucial line in the book. What, ultimately, gives us hope? Friendship, love, life. The recognition of the wonder of the world. We have to be alive to the wonder, or we’re doing existence a disservice.”
The story is called Three Am and The Stars Are Out. Is that a song title? “Naw. I just made it up.” Nah-aw. Ah jest made it eh-up. Despite, or perhaps because of, his easygoing amiability and scrupulous politeness, the baroque twang of Carolina gives drama to Rash’s mildest utterance. He lives within hiking distance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in an area where his family, on both his mother’s and his father’s sides, have been settled since the 1700s.