Stories of hardship

November 15, 2011

Ron
Rash writes stories that have as much impact as any I've read; those in this
collection often left me feeling as if I'd been kicked. Rash lives in and writes
about Appalachia, and his stories never leave that home, even when they're set
at the end of the civil war ("Lincolnites").

But
although his home is a beautiful place with pockets of stunning wildness, Rash's
characters find life there to be harsh and mean. Yes, there are kindnesses
exchanged in these stories, as well as intimacies and pockets of a dark,
conspiratorial humor ("Dead Confederates"), but these moments have a kind of
desperation to them, planted amid the brutal ugliness of poverty, drug
addiction and violence.

Poverty
seeps into everything and everyone, generating cruelty and numbing loneliness. In
"Back of Beyond," an uncle accepts the pawned valuables of a meth-addicted
nephew, then finds that the young man's parents have been
pushed out to live in an unheated trailer. In "Burning Bright," the impenetrable
obsession of an arsonist is mixed with tender intimacies between a husband and
wife. In "Hard Times," a man guarding his family's henhouse confronts not a fox
but a neighbor's hungry child.

Several
themes come together in "Waiting for the End of the World." It's 1:45 a.m., and
incoherent bar customers sprawl across tables. A guitarist is playing, and naturally someone
requests "Freebird," by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The guitarist plays the song--and customers
raise their heads from the tables. Conversations stop. "Whatever it is," notes the
guitarist,

They
become serious and reflective. Maybe it's just the music's slow surging build.
Or maybe something more--a yearning for the kind of freedom [Ronnie] Van Zant's
lyrics deal with, a recognition of the human need to lay their burdens down . .
. to actually feel unshackled, free and in flight.

Rash's
ruthless clarity and spare, beautifully executed stories alert us to some neighbors
who would otherwise be invisible to many of us.