Ron Rash is a writer of quiet and stunning beauty. His novel One Foot in Eden was one of my favorites in my year of reading one book a day. When I received his latest publication, a collection of short stories entitled Burning Bright, I was excited to sit down and delve in. I was not disappointed. The stories in Burning Bright are beautiful. Each story is luminescent, deeply communicative of Appalachia and perfectly framed with sentences both lyrical and grounded:
"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."
Rash is a poet as well as novelist and short story writer. He uses his agility with sentence rhythm and word resonance to weave stories that are stark, even grim, and yet carry a lasting recognition of those moments of release that spark across even the bleakest of realities. In "Waiting for the End of the World", the narrator, a musician forced to play over and over again "Free Bird," Lynrd Skynrd's anthem to the South, works his way deep into the familiar lines and finds new meaning there:
"I'm merging the primal and existential and I've cranked up the volume so loud empty beer bottles are vibrating off tables and the tractor beams are pulsing like strobe lights and whatever rough beast is asleep out there in the dark is getting its wake-up call and I'm ready and waiting for whatever its got."
In "The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars," a woman left alone by the death of her mother and child and the distancing of her husband, goes in search of the jaguar of South Carolina, trying to find "if there is anything left inside her mind she can believe." She uncovers a time when South Carolina was lit by the colors and flight of thousands of parrots, and she finds a lone jaguar, where "a tree limb rises toward her like an outstretched hand."
I recommend reading Rash's poems along with his stories. He is a writer gifted at expressing the sublimated and sublime hope of people hard-used by circumstance and long used to endurance, as shown in this excerpt from his poem, "Fall Creek":
where years ago
local lore claims clothes were shed
by a man and woman wed
less than a month, who let hoe
and plow handle slip from hands,
left rows half done, crossed dark waves
of bottomland to lie on
a bed of ferns, make a child,
and all the while the woman
stretching both arms behind her
over the bank, hands swaying
wrist-deep in current -- perhaps
some old wives' tale, water's pulse
pulsing what seed might be sown,
or just her need to let go
the world awhile, let the creek
wash away every burden
her life had carried so far,
open a room for this new
becoming as her body
flowed around her man like water.
The stories in Burning Bright go back to the Civil War, through to the Depression and on across the years to today; the common elements are location -- Appalachia -- and struggle. Whether it be to survive as a Lincolnite (Union-supporter) in Confederate territory, to withstand the grinding poverty of the Depression, to return from the Korean war and renew roots, or to hold together a family amidst the disintegration caused by meth addiction, job loss, medical debts, or revamped identity, Rash's characters rely on gritty fortitude, shadowed compassion, and a bone deep alliance to the land and the people they came from to carry on, day to day. The stories in Burning Bright could be bleak and depressing but under Rash's touch, both the characters and their lives instead speak of endurance, intuition, and grace.