Sunday, September 13, 2015
I had the opportunity to meet Rash at the North Carolina English Teachers Association fall conference the year he was given the group's Ragan-Rubin award, and then again when he was our featured writer at the Laurette LePrevost Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College.
Rash's writing struck a chord in my students; many of them recognized some of the conflicts the characters faced--families who weren't so happy that they were going to college to better themselves, the growing plague of meth in this part of the state. When he appeared on campus for the readings, he was warm and generous with his time. He varied his presentations, reading his audiences well. In his spare time between readings, he went back to his room to write.
Ron Rash doesn't write books so he can make appearances. He writes, it seems, because he's a writer. He has a reputation for daily discipline--and the work pays off. While some writers are pulled away from producing more good writing after they have one successful book, relishing the book signings and readings, Rash manages to stay in control.
His latest novel Above the Waterfall, set in the part of the South near my home, brings to mind his short story "Back of Beyond," which appeared in his collection Burning Bright. While that story focused on a pawn shop owner, the plot of this book is shared by two protagonists: Les, who at fifty-one is about to retire from his job as sheriff, and Becky, a park ranger who bears serious emotional scars from her past.
The shift between narrators showcases Rash's deft use of language. Becky's sections are often poetic; in some chapters, she works on fragments on her own poetry in response to her natural world, while in others she is drawn again and again to Hopkins.
Les is a complex character--a tough guy and an artist, a lawman who accepts bribes from the area pot growers in order to focus on the local meth problem.
Both of the characters deal with guilt and trauma from their past: Becky survived a school shooting, which left her silent for a time; Les feels responsibility for his ex-wife's suicide attempt. What they hold in common is determination not to rush to judgment when an elderly curmudgeon seems the obvious guilty party when a fish kill occurs on the resort property adjoining his land. The attempt to solve the crime drives the plot, even as the novel remains character-centered.
Without sermonizing, Rash sustains an underlying theme of mercy and second chances, set against a backdrop illustrating the far-reaching consequences of the current meth epidemic on individuals, families, and communities.
Turning the last page, I could not resist going back to re-read page one, a sure sign this book will stay with me for a long time.