Ron Rash is a rare and elegant writer whose evocative books are filled with astute observations of the world in which he lives. Residing in western North Carolina, Rash consistently examines how people embrace and degrade their environment — how they treat nature with care and respect, or consider it to be merely a resource to be exploited.
His bestselling novel of 2009, “Serena,” followed a corrupt 1930s Carolina lumber baron and the burgeoning environmental movement trying to stay one step ahead of the profiteers. In his latest novel, “Above the Waterfall,” Rash again looks at how people use the natural world for their financial gain and for their spiritual well-being.
Les is longtime sheriff in a small Appalachian town; he’s known everyone in the area for years, the troublemakers, the meth users (and their parents), the fishing resort owners and employees, and his deputies, including one who will soon take over when Les retires. Becky, a newcomer to the area who has a complicated relationship with Les, is a park ranger with two traumatic events in her past that continually shape her place in the world and how she cares for the people in her life.
Rash has carefully constructed his narrative in the voices of these characters, so very different from each other: the straight-ahead, matter-of-fact sheriff who has his own skeleton or two in the closet, and who makes paintings of the world that reflect his general solitary nature, and the poetic, ethereal Becky, who observes the birds, fish and dragonflies of the rivers and forests as she tries to help her friends — and herself — stay above water.
While Les tells us what it’s like donning a hazmat suit, prepping to raid a meth house where the addict’s baby may have a suffered a terrible fate, Becky tells us: “Months past their name, mayflies emerge. Ephemeroptera. Brief lives spent aloft, they drift down light as dandelion spores.”
The two worlds of Les and Becky collide when a crime is committed that results in a huge and sudden fish kill, pitting the two characters against each other as they try to learn the truth of what happened. The personalities and actions of other residents of the area emerge, aided so well by Rash’s great descriptive powers. (“Gerald’s fingers began rubbing his palms. He’d spent his life trying to figure out problems with his hands instead of with words.”)
In “Above the Waterfall,” Rash has created another fine work: a quick-paced, slender novel that captures the imperfections of how we all are, our weaknesses, our biases, our prejudices, and then, in times of stress and anxiety, if and how we emerge from those troubles with our morals intact.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Portland, Ore.