Just when we all thought that Ron Rash had taken his Southern Appalachian noir novels to the limit with Serena, he comes back with not only a topper, but creates a new fiction genre in the process. Rash’s new novel, The Cove, like his previous fiction, is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In this case, he’s taking his readers over the mountain from Haywood County to Madison County in and around the town of Mars Hill. While this story is a “mountain mystery” and a page-turner in the vein of his latest novel and his recent short stories, it is written in a softer tone, a slower pace. In fact, it’s a love story that is all about timing and the intricate details from which a good yarn is spun.
In a book where the saying “timing is everything,” proves to be providential, Rash has written a lovely, sensitive tale. Who would have thought that on the tails of Serena, the Duke of Dark Tales would have, could have gone in this direction? In The Cove his “new” tone of language and the storyline are consistent throughout, including the symbolically imaginative Hawthorne-like naming of his characters: Laurel Shelton (a reversal of Shelton Laurel), Ledbetter, Weatherbee, Bettingfield, Lingefelt, Lusk. And first names: Doak, Slidell, Tillman, Boyce, Jubel. This is an Appalachian chorus line of characters who add their own patinas to this portrait/landscape painting of a World War I version of Romeo & Juliet.
A young woman (Laurel) isolated in a remote cove that is “nothing but shadow land” on the outskirts of Mars Hill who is considered by local townsfolk to be a witch — due largely to the cove’s history as being “cursed” and because of a peculiar birthmark on her skin — comes across a drifter camped out on the family land. With a haunting flute melody, like the birdsong of a Carolina parakeet, wafting through the woods from up along a rock outcropping above the family farm, she goes to search out the music’s source. (Rash later describes the stranger’s flute music: “It wasn’t so much a soaring sound but something on the song’s surface, like a water strider skimming over a creek pool.”)
While Rash drags out the meeting of the two main characters with a tantalizingly deft touch, when the two finally do meet it is love at first sight — at least for Laurel, whose prospects for marriage and a helpmate to keep up the old mountain farm are near to nonexistent. The drifter turns out to be an escapee from a World War I internment camp for German prisoners in Hot Springs, which is something that Laurel and her brother don’t find out until the end of the book when Rash shifts gears — after a long courtship between Laurel and the flute-playing stranger —and the book becomes “a mountain western” complete with a local saloon, posses and search parties, lawmen and lunkheads, and of course the corn liquor.
In the telling of The Cove’s story, Rash’s language is purer, more poetic. His “touch” is softer, more finely honed. Using local language and a lusciously restrained libido, Rash’s telling is reminiscently Shakespearean. “He’s already tallied my gone hand against me,” Laurel’s brother Hank says, explaining to himself his future father-in-law’s attitude concerning his upcoming marriage. “I’d as lief not have him beading its barrel on me,” says Hank later in the book, referring to the stranger who has been brought from the woods into their cabin after nearly being stung to death by yellow jackets with “the welts on his neck and chest arguing at least as much poison as a copperhead bite.” “I need to get the daubing off you. They’ve drawn what poison they will. Besides, like Hank said, you don’t want to be mistook for a bobcat,” Laurel says to the stranger when he finally comes to consciousness and finds himself inside the Shelton cabin.
When it is revealed that the stranger is mute, Laurel remarks: “Not being able to talk … I’d think it could make you feel a lavish of aloneness.” In this literary-littered telling of a familiar tale, there’s even a lovely nod to our local-boy-made-good Thomas Wolfe when Rash slips Wolfe’s father into the storyline. One of the book’s main characters, Chauncey Feith, wanders into Wolfe’s tombstone and monument business building and carries on a conversation where reality and fiction overlap like parallel universes.
… as he walked toward Grant’s Pharmacy, Chauncey noticed the two-story brick building with W.O. Wolfe Tombstones and Monuments painted on the storefront … Someone coughed inside the shop and a few moments later an old man, tall and gaunt, stooped through the open doorway, his hands and leather apron smudged with white dust. “W.O. Wolfe at your service, sir,” the stonecutter said, and made a slight bow. “How may I assist you?” “Do you make monuments of real people?” “I do,” the older man replied, “although, as you can see, more often creatures of the celestial realm.” “And why is that?” Chauncey asked. “Perhaps they wish an image of what they aspire to be instead of what they are,” the stonecutter replied. “The better angels of our nature, corporal as well as spiritual. I can assure you, young squire, from my own humbling experience, that as we grow infirm and life’s pleasures pale we long to free ourselves from these sad declining vessels. But enough of such dispiriting parlance. An old man’s morbid reckonings are not usually the concerns of youth, nor should they be.” The stonecutter paused, licked the tip of his thumb and rubbed it on his apron, allowed a wan smile.
In the book’s suspenseful and nail-biting conclusion, the timing in actions and events in the last 20 pages give new meaning to the word “irony” with the Romeo and Juliet-like Shakespearean ending stretching minutes into what seem like hours and with mere seconds making all the difference in the world. Ron Rash, in this book and with this ending, has become a master clock-maker. With impeccable timing, meticulous craftsmanship, and flawless design, he has given us yet another mountain classic. One which, to the squeamish, will be much more palatable, perhaps, than previous books. One can only imagine what Ron Rash will come up with next as part of the traveling magic show that he conjures with each new book.