By David Podgurski
Ecco, February 2013
Considering the glut of zombies lunching on people’s feet and pallid vampires sucking down plasma in fiction these days, it’s refreshing to find a different variety of horror, sadness and human emotion in Nothing Gold Can Stay, Ron Rash’s superb short story collection.
But Rash’s real trick here—and what makes this collection so impressive—is how commonplace themes and tragedies are pulled off with uncanny narrative simplicity. These fourteen stories present a mass of characters leading quiet, often desperate, lives, and the reader cozies up to them via granular narrative detail. You care about these individuals because they’re depicted vividly as humans with the usual desires and failings, and the lives they lead are often heartbreaking, even if they make horrific choices or perpetrate inhumane acts. Close the book and you’ve been walloped emotionally, but you’ve also been charmed by the author’s innate talent, even if his characters, often enough, aren’t particularly charming.
Rash jabs in a minimalist style, secreting meaning slyly with movements of perspective yielding realizations:
The woman stepped onto the six nailed-together planks that looked more like a raft than a porch. Firewood was stacked on one side, and closer to the door an axe leaned between a shovel and a hoe. She let her eyes settle on the axe long enough to make sure he noticed it. Sinkler saw now that she was younger than he thought, maybe eighteen, at most twenty, more girl than woman.
A microcosm of the collection as a whole, this passage from “The Trusty” hints at potential violence and change through some seriously brisk summation: A woman, Lucy, has been transformed into a young girl in the course of a mere 100 words. This swift shift resounds and amplifies when Sinkler, a Depression-era “trusty” sent to collect water for a chain gang, flees and finds a different kind of release later on.
Each of Rash’s stories circles themes of thirst, history, imprisonment and escape, and manages to explore and surprise with personality types we all know, or think we know, such as poor farmers, lost souls, druggies, and, most importantly, Southern Appalachians who live close to the land. Each tale streams with a portentous undercurrent as well, most often reflecting that harsh, historically pregnant terrain itself. The reader learns to suspect that something ugly or, at least, important, will happen to the characters from the opening paragraph, and the question (and enjoyment/tragedy) lies in finding out what it’ll be, or when it will come, as the story unfolds.
Case in point: Love and devotion pull a future apart in “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” about a “mountain boy” star student who’s lost his girlfriend to meth. Her life is about to turn around, it seems, but ends instead in a sickening turn of love rekindled: “As she looked up, something sparked in her pupils. Something, though it wasn’t indecision.” Unless you’re into tweaking, that flicker ain’t what anyone wants to come face to face with.
This emotional blast clings to the reader with an unsettling calm, revealing more the more it’s pondered. However, other tales’ climactic events are less ironic; sometimes, they unfold through a realization that the past can’t be regained, as in the title story, which works through first-person narration, and sees two oxycontin addicts repeat the violent theft of a more distant past. Or, as in “A Servant of History,” a single word proves potently pivotal from the past: argyle, a Scots clan pattern, echoes the loss, betrayal and death straight from Old World slaughter into the New World’s present population.
The landscape itself, a hovering nemesis throughout, seduces eerily in “Something Rich and Strange,” where a girl drowns in a river amid breathless currents of words: “She rises coughing up water, gasping air, her feet dragging the bottom like an anchor trying to snag waterlogged wood or rock jut and as the current quickens again she sees her family…” Water and watery words are Rash’s descriptive metaphors for storytelling itself in “The Woman at the Pond” as well, the best way to conjure up what he calls “our sense of the past.”
Structurally, all of these stories are clinics in achieving expansive effects through understated means, and after the tales are read (and your insides are hollowed out), the reader realizes that an ominous, dark brilliance fills Nothing Gold Can Stay. Generically, Ron Rash may be viewed as a “regional” (read: “Southern”) author in terms of content or setting, but anyone coming to this collection afresh will realize that his is a distinct voice in American writing in the broadest sense.
“ ‘Some things don’t let you forget,’ ” a character in “The Dowry” says.
Well, these stories are just like that.