North Carolina State motto: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem) (1893)
I don’t think I’d like to live in North Carolina. And certainly not in the 4.3 square miles that comprises Boiling Springs, North Carolina. The official website says the town is known as ‘The Crossroads of Opportunity’. Why does that scare me just a little? Of course everyone’s lives are filled with crossroads: will-I-or-won’t-I?s can become thank-Gods or if-onlys so easily; what things seemed to be can sharply come into focus; welcome to the real world, son. Some say—well, The Guardian said—that “[t]he real spirit of the US is found not in the mega-cities but in the soda fountains and dime stores of its small towns.” Maybe that’s what scares me because more and more the notion of small-town America has a tinge of menace to it. I guess The Last Picture Show, The Stepford Wives and Blue Velvet started me thinking that way and I’ve never been able to shake it. Small towns and the mentality that accompanies them aren’t unique to America. I grew up in Scotland where there are many and the expression, “The best thing about [insert town name here] is the train station,” is a well-known, well-worn phrase.
To illustrate how things are changing in the States then:
Oelwein, Iowa, spawned a meth lab and crime that became the subject of the best-selling book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
"Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation myth," wrote Methland author Nick Reding. "But it has become something else, too—something more sinister and difficult to define."
It's not that small-town America is worse than cities or suburbs. But it's clearly not the singular birthplace of principle and virtue portrayed by mythmakers and politicians. – Stephen Thomas, ‘Small-town America—the myth and the reality’, McClatchydc.com, 21 August 2011
In his latest collection of short stories Appalachian author Ron Rash—who grew up in Boiling Springs (population still only 5506 in 2011)—shows us that all is not what it seems in rural America and drugs are only one of the issues the inhabitants have to deal with. But before we look at that, let’s address the appellation ‘Appalachian’ first:
[T]hough there is no doubt I’m very proud to be Appalachian, I am sometimes worried that when we put adjectives in front of “writer” there’s a sense that he or she is only that. If my work only appeals to people in the region, then I’ve failed as a writer because I think what we want to do is what Eudora Welty said: “One place understood helps us understand all other places better.” So by writing about a particular place, I also hope I’m writing about all other places as well. – Marann Mincey, ‘An interview with Ron Rash’, The Pedestal Magazine, Issue 49
As a Scottish writer I get where he’s coming from; the population of my town is about the same as Boiling Springs even if the name’s not quite as cool. Geography aside, like me, Rash also writes in dialect from time to time and that immediately puts his work one step further off for his readers. It’s a handicap no matter what way you look at it. Setting all his stories in the same area—an area as foreign to me as I imagine Scotland is to him—doesn’t help his universal appeal which is why his stories have to work that bit harder to appeal to a wider audience. But not too hard. As my fellow Scot Robert Burns noted just over two hundred years ago, “A Man's a Man for a' that.” The setting of Rash’s stories may be alien to me but he deals with things that I do understand: loneliness, not belonging, feeling trapped, believing that the grass is always greener. This is perfectly exemplified in the opening story to the collection, ‘The Trusty’, concerning Sinkler, a prisoner from a chain gang who gets sent to the local farms looking for water for the men (on his own and unshackled, hence the title). During one such visit he encounters a young woman, the wife of the farmer, and it’s obvious that the two are kindred spirits, equally desperate but similarly incapable of escaping alone; pooling their resources might give them a fighting chance:
“I don’t think I could stand it,” Lucy said. “Being locked up so long and knowing I still had nigh on four years.”
He checked her lips for the slightest upward curve of a smile, but it wasn’t there.
“Yeah,” Sinkler said, taking a step closer. “You don’t seem the sort to stand being locked up. I’d think a young gal pretty as you would want to see more of the world.”
“How come you ain’t done it?” she asked again, and brushed some loose wisps of hair behind her ear.
“Maybe the same reason as you,” Sinkler said. “It’s not like you can get whisked away from here. I haven’t seen more than a couple of cars and trucks on this road, and those driving them know there’s prisoners about. They wouldn’t be fool enough to pick up a stranger. Haven’t seen a lot of train tracks either.”
“Anybody ever try?” Lucy asked.
“Yeah, two weeks ago. Fellow ran that morning and the bloodhounds had him grabbing sky by dark. All he got for his trouble was a bunch of tick bites and briar scratches. That and another year added to his sentence.”
They do make their big bid for freedom but, just as they’re about the find their way into Asheville, Fate steps in only, in what I was to discover was typical of Rash, we don’t actually get to see what goes wrong. It’s suggested but he leaves the specifics up to us. And this is something that happens quite often—or doesn’t happen to be more precise—the critical or key scene takes place off the page or the story stops (seemingly) a couple of paragraphs short.
In ‘Where the Map Ends’, for example, we have two runaway slaves whose map has only taken them so far. Freedom is tantalisingly close. Only one obstacle remains but it’s not what they expected. Again, as in ‘Trusty’, the climax is left entirely to the readers’ imaginations.
The need to escape isn’t always as obvious as in these two stories but it does crop up in others. Take the couple in ‘Cherokee’ who visit the local casino in need of a lucky break. They’re imprisoned by poverty:
With a green rabbit’s foot clipped on his belt loop, a silver four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, Danny has brought all the good luck he could find. As they drive past a billboard advertising Harrah’s Casino, his free hand caresses the green fur, maybe hoping luck really can rub off on you. Lisa remembers a story about a magic lamp that, once rubbed, grants three wishes. Danny would settle for just one—make the one hundred and fifty-seven dollars in her handbag turn into a thousand.
“By what time Monday morning?”
“Ten,” Danny answers.
“Does the bank come and get it or do we take it to them?”
Danny shifts his eyes from the road and looks at her.
“We could win,” he says. “People do all the time. That woman from Franklin won twenty thousand on a quarter slot machine.”
The ‘it’ Lisa is talking about is their truck which they’re struggling to keep up the payments on. Of course the story can really end only two ways, they get the money or they don’t. Of course if they do get the money can they hang onto it and use it for its intended purpose? Considering the fact that the bulk of this story consists of them playing what we call here in Scotland a puggy (i.e. a slot machine) Rash manages to keep the tension going quite effectively but it’s the end of the story that’s the most effective and it’s not until the penultimate sentence we learn the outcome. Well played.
Not all the stories in the book are set in the present. It’s hard to place exactly when ‘Trusty’ is set but it has a Depression feel to it, ‘Where the Map Ends’ clearly takes place before slavery’s been abolished and ‘The Magic Bus’ is definitely in the sixties—the Vietnam War is still on the go—but it’s core is much the same: two hippies break down near a farm, the daughter lends them a pail to get water for their radiator and they present her with the chance to ‘escape’ to the big city, San Francisco:
“Time to unplug the jukebox,” Thomas said. “Time to get back on the road.”
“I thought you were staying until morning,” Sabra said.
“This bus has no set schedule,” Thomas said. “When it comes by, you either get on board or you’re left behind.”
Wendy put the elastic and beads in the backpack and tightened the straps. She stood up, a bit unsteadily, and walked over to the barn mouth.
“So,” Thomas said, staring at Sabra, “ready to get on the bus?”
Drugs, of course, make their appearance in this story—young Sabra gets her first whiff of marijuana—and in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ where two young lads break into a World War II vet’s home to steal a jar of gold fillings to buy drugs, but the closest to the story in Methland is ‘Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven’ which opens:
The Shackleford house was haunted. In the skittering of leaves across its rotting porch, locals heard the whispered misery of ghosts. Footsteps creaked on stair boards and sobs filtered through walls. An Atlanta developer had planned to raze the house and turn the thirty acres into a retirement village. Then the economy flatlined. The house continued to fold in on itself and the meandering dirt drive became rough as a logging trail.
In this ‘haunted house’ (now a meth kitchen) Jody gets to meet the ‘ghost’ of his old girlfriend, Lauren:
What’s left of her is at the Shackleford place, Trey, Lauren’s brother, had finally told Jody.
Jody remembers the place well enough:
Each time they’d driven here their senior year, Lauren had leaned into Jody’s shoulder, her hand on his thigh. Those moments had been as good as the actual lovemaking—hours alone yet awaiting them.
Now life’s moved on. Jody has been ostracised by his classmates for being a swot. He’s escaped to college but Lauren is also ‘escaping’ from her dull life in her own way. As she tells Jody:
“Oh, you know me,” Lauren said. “I’ve never been much for delayed gratification. I find what feels good and dive right in.”
“This feels good,” Jody said, “living out here with those two?”
“It allows me what I need to feel good.”
“What will you do when you can’t get what you need?” Jody asked. “What happens then?”
“The Lord provides,” Lauren said softly. “Isn’t that what we learned in church? Has being around all those atheist professors caused you to lose your faith, Jody, like Reverend Wilkinson’s wife warned us about in Sunday school?”
Lauren moved closer, leaned her head lightly against his chest though her arms stayed at her sides. He smelled the meth-soured clothes, the unwashed skin and hair.
“Does being here bring back good memories?” Lauren asked.
Of course it does but the Raleigh of his past is not the Raleigh that’s on offer now. Lauren’s brother cuts to the quick quite succinctly when he says:
“Stay in Raleigh … This place is like a spider’s web. You stay long enough you’ll get stuck in it for good. You’ll end up like her [meaning his sister]. Or me.”
The thing about freedom is that it only lasts as long as you stay out of that cage. The last thing Jody needed to do was come home. Freedom can mean the freedom to choose ones preferred prison.
On the cover to the book there’s a quote from The Times: “Rash can create a character in a single sentence: this is the great American short story at its best.” I’ve heard others described that way (Alice Munro, for example) but I didn’t see any really great examples in this book. Not of a single sentence anyway. But give the man a hundred words:
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 mouldy 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 grew. They were finding nutrients, some kind of work was going on down there in the soil.
(from ‘A Sort of Miracle’)
The beldame’s face possessed the colour and creases of a walnut hull. A black shawl draped over her shoulders, obscuring a body shrunken to a child’s stature. The old woman appeared more engulfed than seated, head and body pressed into the soft padding, shoe tips not touching the floor. And yet, the effect was not so much of a small woman as of a large chair, which, like the velvet lining, gave an appearance of regal authority.
“Granny,” Molly said. “We have guests.”
(from ‘A Servant of History’)
Rash is not only a writer of short stories although this is his fifth collection. He has also written five novels, a children’s book and four collections of poetry. In an interview with Jack Shuler, for the South Carolina Review, Rash said "when I write one, I can't do the other," explaining that the two forms seem to come to him on different wavelengths. I get that but I can also sense a poet’s sensibilities in these words. My prose is nothing like my poetry but I couldn’t write the prose I do if I hadn’t written the poetry I have and I suspect much the same is true with Rash. As he says, “I’m a narrative poet, which makes the transition to fiction easier.” You can read a decent selection of his poems here but I’d like to highlight this one which could so easily have been presented as a short story:
Sometimes I'd spend the whole night coughing up
what I'd been breathing in all day at work.
I'd sleep in a chair or take a good stiff drink,
anything to get a few hours rest.
The doctor called it asthma and suggested
I find a different line of work as if
a man who had no land or education
could find himself another way to live.
For that advice I paid a half-day's wage.
Who said advice is cheap? It got so bad
each time I got a break at work I'd find
the closest window, try to catch a breath.
My foreman was a decent man who knew
I would not last much longer on that job.
He got me transferred out of the card room,
let me load the boxcars in the yard.
But even though I slept more I'd still wake
gasping for air at least one time a night,
and when I dreamed I dreamed of bumper crops
of Carolina cotton in my chest.
Most of the stories in this collection could be distilled down to something like this. This is not to say that they feel padded—far from it—but if you were to summarise them you could probably whittle them down to a couple of hundred words like this. His characters aren’t especially laconic nor does he exactly scrimp on descriptions but when you boil them down there isn’t a great deal of substance to these pieces; he says what he has to say and gets off the page, a credo I approve of. There isn’t one that isn’t well-written and well-rewritten by a man who’s honed his craft over many years. He says:
I just love short stories, and I love to write them. I think short stories are the hardest form to write—harder than poetry and harder than novels. There’s concision such as there is in poetry, a sense that every word and every sentence has to be in place for a short story to work. Yet at the same time the reader has to feel the satisfaction of a novel, the sense of an arc, a conclusion, a whole experience being rendered. – ‘Ron Rash biography’, Poetry Foundation
Those are lofty aims and as much as I enjoyed this collection I’m not sure any one of the stories was a satisfying as a novel. That he would be compared to the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy and include Faulkner among his influences came as no surprise to me though. It’s the kind of company a writer wants to be associated with.
Probably my favourite story was ‘Something Rich and Strange’ in which he bravely includes an almost-three-hundred-word long sentence in which he describes a girl drowning. Very effective. This is probably the most poetic of the fourteen stories and contains no actual dialogue but concentrates on the rescue attempt and the effect this has on the diver who is sent down to try to free the body. A moving and haunting tale and oddly enough there is also an undercurrent of escapism here because the girl’s body is trapped underwater for a long time because of heavy rains.
Even the last story in the book, ‘Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out’, is about the need to escape. In this story an old veterinarian and a long-time friend struggle to help a calf ‘escape’ from its mother’s womb:
“Lord help us if our kids knew what we were up to tonight,” Darnell said as he rubbed a shoulder. “They’d likely fix you and me up with those electronic ankle bracelets, keep us under house arrest.”
“Which would show they’ve got more sense than we have,” Carson replied.
This is an enjoyable collection and certainly not a hard read—I finished it in two sittings. The only story people might struggle with a little could be ‘A Servant of History’ in which an Englishman, an employee of the English Folk Dance and Ballad Society winds up in Sylva looking to do for Appalachia what Bartók did for Europe and Fanshawe did for Africa and Oceania. He ends up trapped in the home of Luther Wilson and his grandmother of the McDonald clan. Strangely enough this is probably the story that most people won’t get. You’d have to be Scottish and understand the animosity that existed between the clans and between the Scots and the English to really appreciate it:
The Clan system occasioned so many petty sovereignties, so many petty jealousies and conflicting interests, that the existence of a state of peace and security was hardly to be expected; and when to this was added the fiery disposition, the characteristic pride, proneness to fight, and desire to be distinguished for valour which animated the Highlanders, the reason of so many lamentable struggles becomes plain enough. A slight, an angry word, a sneering answer, was sufficient to plunge whole clans in bloodshed-was enough, indeed, to cause a feud which might continue for generations, until almost a whole people had been decimated. – Highlanders of Scotland, GlobalSecurity.org
This is also the funniest story in the book—the book is not heavy on humour and what there is is subtle—but, again, I think the humour might bypass some.
I really can’t say a bad thing about any of the stories in this book but I do find myself struggling for superlatives. I feel guilty even writing this—who am I to criticise?—but none of these stories really excited me. I didn’t feel the need to yammer on about what I’d just read as soon as I’d finished a story. Carrie always knows when a book’s excited me because by the time she comes to proofread my article she feels like she’s heard it all before. This doesn’t mean they didn’t move me because they did, albeit not to tears. Perhaps they were a little on the stolid side for my tastes. If you’re even remotely interested in how to construct a decent short story, though, you should read this guy.
You can read an extract from the book here.
Ron Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700's, and it is this region that is the primary focus of his writing. Rash grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and graduated from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University.
Rash’s poetry and fiction have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Longman Anthology of Southern Literature, Sewanee Review, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Shenandoah, and Poetry. He has been honoured with many awards, including an NEA Poetry Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, an O. Henry Award, and the James Still Award by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Two of his recent books, Serena and Chemistry, were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His last book of stories, Burning Bright, won the 2010 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, the most lucrative award in the world for short fiction.
Rash currently holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.