If you ever find yourself as a character in a Ron Rash story, even in the best of circumstances: Run, run, run as fast as you can! Get out of that story because if you stay, something bad is bound to happen.
Rash, a North Carolina writer, has written four books of poetry and nine collections of stories and novels (including “Serena,” soon to be, as they say, a major motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper). His latest collection, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” contains 14 striking stories, each filled with memorable characters from the mountains of western North Carolina, and from the time of the Civil War to the present.
Being raised in a town called Boiling Springs has surely added to the author’s understanding of the rough-hewn, rugged individuals who inhabit these sometimes harsh tales. But it’s the situations and scenarios in which these people appear, as well as the surprising last-minute turn of events, that shape these truly fine stories.
Like the first story, “Trusty,” where a rural member of a chain gang sweet-talks a bored young housewife into helping him escape through the woods when, suddenly, everything changes. Or “The Dowry,” a post-Civil War story in which the daughter of a headstrong, war-injured Confederate colonel wants to marry a young man who served in the Union Army. The story is written in language fitting to the time (“The horse’s nostrils exhaled white plumes, its hooves gaining cautious purchase on the slopes”) and told from the perspective of the small town’s pastor, who remained neutral and largely untouched by the war. The elderly pastor makes a startling sacrifice to ease the intractable tension between the divisive families.
These engaging stories center on people finding themselves in unexpected encounters that force them to re-evaluate their place in the world. In “The Magic Bus,” a naive teenage girl befriends a Vietnam War-era hippie couple and considers joining them before a disastrous event occurs. In “Cherokee,” a young couple on the edge of financial ruin visit a casino for a last-ditch try to win enough money to keep their pickup truck from being repossessed. Amazingly, they win, but they’ve also been given a free hotel room, which alters their situation.
The perils of life and the realities of death are always close at hand and very real, sometimes mesmerizing, as in “Something Rich and Strange” (which has an astonishing page-long sentence describing a girl’s drowning), sometimes poetic, as in “Night Hawks.” (Describing a nighttime DJ: “All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone.”) After finishing this collection, one simply just wants to read more of Ron Rash.
Jim Carmin is a freelance critic in Portland, Ore., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.