Jacob closed his eyes but did not sleep. Instead, he imagined towns where hungry men hung on boxcars looking for work that couldn’t be found, shacks where families lived who didn’t even have one swaybacked milk cow. He imagined cities where blood stained the sidewalks beneath buildings tall as ridges. He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was.
—Ron Rash, Hard Times
Finished reading Ron Rash’s first collection of short stories Burning Bright tonight. In an interview on the Daily Beast he says he lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina where he teaches at Western Carolina University. His family is from there, and his stories arise out of that region. He’s a hard hitter, though, whose sparse prose juts up in the thick of the natural surroundings of his characters like a force of darkness. He’s able in a few observational strokes to awaken in the reader a sense of the solitude and emptiness at the core of things and of ourselves. His stories that take you down that dark road where nothing goes well in the end, and he leaves you neither calloused nor whimpering, but shocked into that knowledge of existence that makes you feel like you’d been hit with a two-by-four repeatedly. What I felt through all of the stories was a sense of pervasive fatalism, which as many know has always been a part of noirish territory; and, to be honest, these tales, though not explicitly noirs, belong to that subgenre that many are terming Country noir —a mixture of region, style, and naturalism that strips humans of their divine right, their exceptionalism and places them on equal footing with all other organic life on this predatory planet. There’s always a fine line between sentimentalism and the hard realities of life, and Rash is able to walk it without tipping the balance either way. His observations are keen and enter into the darkness with a lightness of being and tempo that belies the fierce stillness at the heart of these stories. And, I mean stillness, in the sense of emptiness — allowing things to speak for themselves, to let the gaze weave the natural and the human in a mesh without fusing the one in the other, but leaving those gaps and cracks that remain obstacles in our search to know and understand the meaning that cannot be brought into stories, yet seems to leave its aura between the lines like dark pebbles on a river bank…
Maybe this pursuit of meaning will always be illusive or even delusional if you accept the nihilistic framework of valuelessness as I do, yet even in the midst of all this emptiness one want’s answers, one needs answers to the dilemma of one’s being here. Jeff Vandemeer in one of his essays or posts about Derek Raymond — the well known writer of English noir Factory series — reminded him of a “question I had once read on a country gravestone erected to a child of six: “Since I was so early done for, I wonder what I was begun for.”” Deep down there’s something that drives us to want to know the answer to such questions, too seek out those fantastic and impossible shores of the metaphysical that we already know are pure fantasy; and, yet, it’s in this darkness and ignorance, more than knowledge of things known that existence gives us meaning —not truth, per se, but that meaning that thrives of the impossible in us.
We alone of creatures invent stories to keep the wolves at bay, to give our lives meaning and purpose that is not there to begin with. Meaning is an addition, something added to life; not in built, but constructed out of our lack, out of that hollow center of the void in our darkness and our ignorance. It’s not the clear bright trail of things visible, but those dark silences and disturbances in things that want come clean, want reveal themselves; those things that we hide from ourselves, those fragmentations and torn parts of our own being that seem to waver in the very world like shadows in a moat. Our attraction to such dark literature is this need to uncover ourselves, our own terror of the truth at the core of our own murderous heart — that, we, too, are like these monstrous prodigies of fear, hate, bigotry, spite, loneliness, and self-corrupting victimage.
We are truly our own worst enemies. It’s Rash and others like him that strip the optimistic veneer off our eyes, all the joyous festival of subterfuge that we buy into that keeps from our eyes the bittersweet knowledge below us and around us; a knowledge that at once reveals a world much more strange and frightening than we like to admit to ourselves without such means. Our little lies of metaphysical safety nets, all our religious and secular comfort tales, our parables of bright suburbia and happiness of social and comic delights that inform our lives and keep us getting up everyday as if this was all going to last forever. In the pages of such stories as Rash and other’s we come face to face with the naked soul stripped of its uncanny valences, a world laid bare as on an operating table, where our lives are unfolded and the inner world revealed at last, with the uncharted and hidden diseases of the soul scorched from their lair, the hidden wounds of our spiritual body revealed in minute detail so that we have no place to hide anymore.
Yet, there are a few stories where Rash plays us false, seeks hope where there is none, let’s characters filter out the truth and construct a tissue of lies to keep the darkness out. Sadly this marks his writing out as middle-tier academic triteness in my own register, as if with all his progressive education he’s allowed the intonations of sociality to outweigh the harsh world of solitude and silences. I think specifically of Burning Bright, a tale that allows the main character, a woman of age, to marry and man half her age which is neither a weakness nor a plus but a subtle remark on her needs, her loneliness, her desires and lacks, a metaphysical blindness to the stark realities she sees so clearly around her but will not face. She maries a young man who is already beyond hope, mired in his own phantasmagoria of redemption through sin (in the old parlance), a corrupted and stained individual, tainted by a history of arsonism. For whom the story reveals an inner logic that slowly but inexorably attenuates and reveals at the same time the truth of his sordid ways; and, yet, the main character, the woman, who will discover the truth, remains the blind optimist, hopeful, seeking blindness rather than insight, seeking a willful ignorance and will not let him go, will not allow the truth to prevail; hiding it from herself and the Sheriff to whom she could have sided, and instead sides in a fantasy of love, a fantasy of hope that things will change for the better if only it will rain… There are other tales in which such hope remains, but I’ll let the reader look into that; it is such hope for the better in some of the tales that reveals a weakness in Rash’s vision, a quality of the progressive academic spirit showing through of which he is a University Professor. His very wavering over the title of “Appalachian writer,” in the interview I cited from the Daily Beast tells us what we need to know about his hopes and dreams. When confronted by the interviewer with the question You’ve often been described as an “Appalachian writer.” Is that a geographic or stylistic title, or a little of both? He says:
I have mixed feelings about any adjective in front of the word “writer.” Chekhov has talked about this, that any designation besides writer (Russian writer, whatever) was a diminishment. I’m proud to be from the region. But sometimes it seems to me that there’s an implication of “just” an Appalachian writer or “just” a Southern writer. That kind of diminishment is bothersome. If a writer is any good, he or she has to both evoke and transcend the region. Faulkner is beloved worldwide because his region, as he himself noted, was “the region where the human heart is in conflict with itself.”
This sense that being —as he states it: just an Appalachian writer or “just” a Southern writer seems to him a diminishment, when it should be a badge of honor and distinguishing part of his life and career as a writer of the people. And, that’s it, one feels this is the key — as I was reading his stories I felt this sense of being at “one remove,” of not quite being present at the crime, the reality flowing in the gaps and cracks of the tale. It’s as if he is ashamed of his heritage, of these people, of this history in subtle ways that mark them out not in parody or the grotesque as in some writers, but rather in that more insidious since of decoupling and distancing himself from the pain and suffering possibly of his own past experience; as if he is using these tales to confront his own personal experience by way of fictionalizing the history of a fantasy Carolina that he can manage. A Carolinian heritage that is part of discourse and known in books, through the lens of writing in ways that keep his own hurt, his own past repressed while allowing it out through displacement and ironic distillation and infusing’s. There is always that point where a critic has to ask whether he is reading too much into a writer’s work, or whether what he is seeing there is there. Only the confirmation or discomfirmation of other reader’s and readings will allow such judgments to come forward. And, since all literary appreciation is personal and eccentric, who is to say if the reading is correct since I do not believe in the myth of correctness of some monolithic reading that will satisfy all readers alike. This is for better or worse my reading and take on Rash’s first collection.
Burning Bright: The Stories
A few of the tales hit home for me. Hard Times was the best of the lot, a tale that spoke of poverty, pride, familial romance, and the bittersweet truth of childhood. There comes a point where the wife of the main narrator confronts Hartley, the poverty stricken neighbor as he and his family pass by their house one day carrying bags of galax:
Hartley carried four burlap pokes stuffed with galax. His wife carried two and the child one. With their ragged clothes hanging loose on bony frames, they looked like scarecrows en route to another cornfield, their possessions in tow. The hound trailed them, gaunt as the people it followed. The galax leaves were the closest thing to a crop Hartley could muster, for his land was all rock and slant. You couldn’t grow a toenail on Hartley’s land, Bascombe Lindsey had once said. That hadn’t been a problem as long as the sawmill was running, but when it shut down the Hartleys had only one old swaybacked milk cow to sustain them, that and the galax, which earned a few nickels of barter at Mast’s General Store.1
The narrator’s wife comes out on the porch and accosts the Hartley clan about some stolen eggs from her Hen Coup that have been missing daily, cutting into the family’s profits. She sees the family dog and asks if it is an egg eater. The father of the Hartley clan stops, puts down his sack, looks at the woman and says: “What’s the why of you asking that?” She answers…
“Something’s got in our henhouse and stole some,” Edna said. “Just the eggs, so it ain’t a fox nor weasel.”
“So you reckon my dog.” Edna did not speak, and Hartley set the pokes down. He pulled a barlow knife from his tattered overalls. He softly called the hound and it sidled up to him. Hartley got down on one knee, closed his left hand on the scruff of the dog’s neck as he settled the blade against its throat. The daughter and wife stood perfectly still, their faces blank as bread dough.
“I don’t think it’s your dog that’s stealing the eggs,” Jacob said.
“But you don’t know for sure. It could be,” Hartley said, the hound raising its head as Hartley’s index finger rubbed the base of its skull.
Before Jacob could reply the blade whisked across the hound’s windpipe. The dog didn’t cry out or snarl. It merely sagged in Hartley’s grip. Blood darkened the road.
The man turns back to the woman and says:
“You’ll know for sure now,” Hartley said as he stood up. He lifted the dog by the scruff of the neck, walked over to the other side of the road and laid it in the weeds. “I’ll get it on the way back this evening,” he said, and picked up the pokes. Hartley began walking and his wife and daughter followed.
It’s this matter-of-fact stoicism of acceptance, a cold eye-for-an-eye justice that says, “Don’t fuck with me. You want to accuse me. Don’t worry I pay my debts. Just don’t step on me.” It’s a sense that one can only reach a certain point of degradation in life, but if you try to strip me of my honor and my pride I draw the line. The act of killing the dog is this honor and this pride. A harsh law in a harsh world.
Of course the narrator, the husband of the woman is none too happy with her stepping out and speaking out of turn:
“Why’d you have to say something to him,” Jacob said when the family had disappeared down the road. He stared at the place in the weeds where flies and yellow jackets began to gather.
“How’d I know he’d do such a thing?” Edna said.
“You know how proud a man he is.”
Reading Ron Rash is like reading the Icelandic Saga’s. These are people of the land who live according to the codes of the natural and unwritten laws of people who belong to the land. The land is not property to these people as much as a part of who and what they are. They are a part of the land, its blood and life lives in their bones. Cold, indifferent, resolute… a stoic fatalism that takes everything in stride without melodrama and fanatical displays of emotion or outcries. These are people who don’t talk much unless they have something to say. Silences and Solitude and Self-Reliance.
The rest of the stories are a mixed lot. Back of the Beyond is a modern tale of meth, in the solitudes of farms and ranches around the U.S.A. that have over the past sixty years been bought out by the large combines, leaving people who once thrived destitute. Small towns have become ghost towns, isolated ranches of families have turned to government hand outs or drugs. This is a tale of the young who have no jobs, no future, no direction and their addictions, cravings, and subhuman degradation.
Dead Confederates was a little out of place for me. A good tale, but seemed more a one-off, not a tale I’ll ever reread. More of a grave robber tale modernized to show the local flavor of the region as a set piece. I’ll not go any further. Some humor comes out, which highlights that aspect of Rash’s forte.
The Ascent is another methamphetamine tale, this time with the main narrator as a young boy at Christmas time dreaming as young boys will of a shiny new bike to ride. But his parents are boy addicts and have used their government checks for drugs. So the boy wanders the woods in search of treasure and happens to find a crashed plane in which two people are dead. The place becomes for the boy a symbol of freedom and escape. He’ll steal the diamond ring from the dead woman and bring it back. His dad will see it and confiscate it, taking it into town and selling it for drug money. The story will devolve from their with an interesting twist at the end…
The Woman Who Believed In Jaguars is another interesting tale. This one is about loss of a child, about the glimpse of a Jaguar in a book, and a woman’s search for the answer’s to her feelings of guilt and remorse. No sense spoiling this with more…
Burning Bright from which the book takes its name is second to Hard Times in rank for me. A tale of love and passion, loneliness, and arson. A woman who has recently lost her husband of many years who lives at the end of a dead end in the country. Isolated. Alone. Discovers in a young man a reawakening of desire for life and love, a second chance… but one she will have to acknowledge is a pact with the Devil.
Return is a about war and memory, about decency in the face of degradation and corruption. A man is returning for overseas to his homeland. Memories of an incident with a sniper in Japan fill his mind, as do the coming months of planting on the farm ahead of him. This one hints at faith in a world without it…
Into the Gorge is about loss and facing our own age and its forgetfulness. A man whose family heritage was sold to the government as BLM property, etc., sneaks back year after year from his place close by to pick wild ginseng roots. He’s almost seventy years old and is caught in the act by a young Ranger who he proceeds to lure to his demise (or so the old man thinks) in a well that he pushes the Ranger into. The story will go downhill from there…
As you can tell from most of the stories things don’t always lead to the good. People make mistakes, people do mad and irrational things, people on the edge, in poverty, old age, youth, turn violent and crazed under the best and worst of circumstances…
Falling Star is another of those tales of obsession and madness. An uneducated laborer who never finished high school marries his sweetheart who have having a child and realizing she wants more goes back to school, university. She studies hard, brings books home… The tale revolves around the husband as narrator and his growing paranoia and jealously of his wife’s education and a possible romance with a teacher…
The Corpse Bird was an interesting mixture of folklore and modern tale, one of those tales of the old ways of farmer’s and the Old Wives worldview. The main narrator is college educated but grew up on a small farm and still remembers many of the old ways (superstitions), which lead him to believe a Corpse Bird – a specific Owl type is roosting next door in a neighbors oak tree, and that its nightly calls harbor death in the offing…
Waiting for the End of the World is another humorous but one-off tale that one can read for fun the first time but probably want come back for a round trip. It’s narrator is a Country singer by night, and a odd job man by day. He works with a group of has been band members who have seen better days. The whole tale is a mock epic of Honky Tonk culture and rifts…
Linolnites was the only purely historical fiction piece, set in the Civil War. A woman narrator left at home while her husband and sons went off to Tennessee to fight with the North. A Confederate who she knows from her childhood drops by and demands her livestock which would leave her destitute, so she offers him herself … but with a twist…
All in all I enjoyed these stories, but unlike many of his forbears these are not stories as memorable, and may or may not last. I’m sure that Hard Times and Burning Bright will have staying power and may in the future become anthologized pieces, but the rest are a mixed lot well worth reading once for the story and the telling. This was of course a first collection, so I’ll be checking out his others in the future.
- Ron Rash. Burning Bright. HarperCollins (February 20, 2010)