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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

Rash's Chemistry "notable"

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Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador, 2007. 230 pages

This remarkable collection of short stories has already been named one of the 15 “notable books” of 2007 by the Story Prize Committee — an award that is presented annually in recognition of the nation’s best. The top award, $20,000, is the largest literary prize in America. In announcing their selection, the contest officials stated “The Appalachian Mountains are the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.”

Frankly, I feel that Ron Rash’s achievements are far more significant than this award indicates. In my opinion no other Appalachian writer captures the inhabitants of the Carolina mountains and their changing world with such arresting details. Rash’s most notable works depict the rapid (and almost unnoticed) departure of mountain culture and tradition.

Usually, Rash’s characters are mute, powerless witnesses to this loss. Farms, neighbors, familiar landmarks and even the very character of the land itself are changing. They react with confusion often struggling to maintain a foothold as the familiar world beneath their feet becomes unstable.

Chemistry consists of 13 short stories, each of which shares a common trait: they are set in a natural world that seems as ephemeral and fragile as an April snowfall. Rash’s characters occupy rusty trailers, rented rooms or doomed farmsteads which cower “like shrinking islands” before the steady advance of land development, condominiums and gated communities. In “Deep Gap,” Marshall listens to the wealthy retirees who have replaced his former customers as they characterize both himself and his hardware store as “quaint;” Marshall ponders the words of an archeologist he had heard interviewed on the local radio: “Cultures disappear and are replaced by other cultures and that is as it should be.” Marshall thinks about his son’s wasted life and decides to take a decisive step before it is too late.

In “Not Waving, but Drowning,” Rash captures the despair and frustration of three patients in the emergency ward of a hospital near Lake Jocassee, S. C. Following the construction of a dam, many of the farming families become unwilling workers in area plants while others drift from job to job. Rash develops an analogy between their empty lives (drunkenness, wife abuse, barren lives) and the abandoned farms on the bottom of Jocassee which, when viewed from a boat floating on the surface, gives the illusion of suspended or encapsulated life — as though at any moment, the residents will emerge and wave at the people in the boat.

“Cold Harbor” chronicles the consequences of a journey by a nurse who searches to find a veteran, Josh Triplett, whose life she had saved in Korea. Troubled by dream of dying soldiers and struggling to cope with her broken marriage, she hopes to find a means of redeeming her own life by “connecting” with her former patient. She finds him in a remote cove near Boone, but it is a bleak reunion. Horribly disfigured and unable to communicate, the soldier cannot give her the solace she seeks. Like many of Rash’s characters, Josh Triplett has taken refuge in solitude.

In “Last Rites,” another Triplett falls victim to violence — murdered while he is camping in a wilderness area. When his mother learns that he is now buried in a wilderness with uncertain boundaries, she employs a surveyor to visit her son’s grave and determine its location — an action that enables her to finally write the location of her son’s grave’s in the family Bible: “Watauga County, North Carolina.” The story stresses the stubborn persistence of ritual (listing the family chronology in the Bible) despite daunting proof of man’s transience.

“Blackberries in June” depicts the futile struggle of a young married couple, Matt and Jamie, who dream of escaping the soul-numbing poverty of their parents by working to own their own home. Ironically, the biggest obstacle to their success is the envy and disapproval (and the growing dependence) of Jamie’s family.

With the exception of “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes,” which is a delightfully humorous tale of “the fish that got away,” the tenor of Rash’s short stories is decidedly somber. However, the author’s deft depiction of these characters elevates them. They are not merely hapless victims, but people with human warmth, an inner strength and a willingness to keep fighting.

Ron Rash is the Parris Professor of Applachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.

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