There's a point in "Waiting for the End of the World," one of a dozen tragically beautiful stories in Ron Rash's new collection, "Burning Bright," where the narrator describes a bar owner's move from social worker to his current position tending to the needs of "the human wreckage" who patronize his place: "He wanted to make the world better, but, according to Rodney, the world wasn't interested."
That's an apt description for the lives of most of Rash's characters, many of whom, like the narrator of "Waiting" -- an ex-high school English teacher fronting a bar band whose act includes playing "Free Bird" hourly -- and its social worker-cum-bar owner, seem to have been forced into their current situations, rather than chosen their lives' path. Whatever the world's reason for forcing them into these situations -- war, drug addiction, death, economic downturn -- that world seems uninterested in doing much other than piling it on.
Take, for example, the narrator of "Dead Confederates." With bills piling up from his mother's hospitalization, he decides that his best option is to take a co-worker up on an offer to sell Confederate paraphernalia after digging it out of the graves of dead soldiers.
And, in "Back of Beyond" there's an elderly couple living in a trailer because their meth-addicted son takes over their home. This is not a nurturing world; it is unforgiving and relentless.
Rash is a praised writer, drawing comparisons to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, and those comparisons ring true here. In "Hard Times," he produces the first of many images that sear into the brain. After Edna accuses her neighbor Hartley's dog of stealing eggs from her barn, Edna's husband, Jacob, rebuts, saying, "I don't think it's your dog that's stealing the eggs." Hartley, a proud man upon whom the Great Depression has been exceptionally hard, states matter-of-factly, "But you don't know that for sure. It could be." And then, "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."
It's haunting images like that, horrific, but utterly believable because of the desperate world Rash creates, that stay with the reader long after this book is finished.
The closest we get to happy endings come through death or murder, which, given the dire circumstances, actually do seem like happy endings. It's as though the reader needs to pull for these characters to change their situations any way they can, because anything is better and their world is not interested in helping.
David Doody is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine (indigestmag.com), a freelance writer, and a bookseller at Common Good Books in St. Paul.