My first conversation with Ron Rash was at the tail end of the 20th century. I had just returned from a second summer spent in Laugharne, Wales, home of Dylan Thomas. We talked then and afterwards primarily about Welsh poetry. He had a love of Welsh literary forms and poets and was writing in these ancient Welsh literary forms such as cynghanedd — a strict form featuring stress, alliteration and rhyme and meaning “harmony — used by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he admired.
Since then, Rash has moved from South Carolina and a teaching job at a community college to Western Carolina University where he is the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Studies, and from writing primarily poetry to becoming one of the planet’s most revered fiction writers. His latest book Above the Waterfall, among other things, is a testament to his lifelong and literary journey.
True to form, Above the Waterfall begins with a reference and a quote from Hopkins quickly followed by a passage referencing Taliesin — the 6th century Welsh bard — setting up the style and the voice of one of his main characters, a park ranger named Becky Shytle.
“Taliesin in the coracle, the salmon of knowledge: all the world’s wisdom waterborne, water born. Welsh notions Hopkins would have known … Foxglove … the same yellow as Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Vincent’s thick paint. Like Hopkins’ thick sounds. Such grace-giving from supposed failed priests. I think of reading Hopkins in those days ...”
With passages like these that are even more poetic and nature-based (“the nature of words”), Rash builds the character of Becky who is the environmental conscience in a book that might crudely be referred to as Sherlock Holmes meets William Bartram. For once, Rash has abandoned the darkness of the genre of Appalachian Noir and taken his immaculate skills into the luminescent land of the living, the light.
Not that there are no dark moments or story lines in this book, but when all is said and done this book is about love. Love of language, words, nature, and, yes, romance. Or as he phrases it in the text: “the swoop toward thicker light,” as further indicated in the Hopkins-like poetic line, “I too feel the heatsoak of sun and stone, the human in me unshackling.”
While the descriptions of landscape and nature are truly some of his best writing to date — in metaphoric lines such as “branches forked like stalled lightning” —Waterfall is not only about the poetry but also the inspired Southern Appalachian language and aphorisms that Rash uses so often as part of his rural North Carolina palette. Phrases such as “like a Southern Baptist calling for backup” (referring to a St. Christopher medal) and “if it gets any drier the catfish will be carrying canteens,” or “it was like putting a metal washer in a vending machine and it falling straight into the change box.” This book is full of Rash’s “inscape of words” in passages and phrases too numerous to count, a trademark that gets richer still.
The book’s plot revolves around the characters of Becky, the ecologically-minded park ranger, and Les, a middle-aged small-town sheriff in a present-day Southern Appalachian landscape where crude meth labs and crystal meth have replaced moonshine and marijuana as a means of traditional and rural Scots-Irish livelihood. Reading like a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery, Rash’s novel moves like water cascading downstream and over precipitous falls.
As Les is trying to clean out his sheriff’s office and contemplate what he’s going to do during his retirement, and as Becky is trying to keep the public forest lands pristine and recreationally pure, both become preoccupied with a crime against nature involving a fish kill that has polluted the falls above one of the county’s most luxurious vacation fishing and hiking resorts.
In a place where “if you’re born in the mountains, you can’t feel at home anywhere else” and “in a county this rural, everyone’s connected, if not by blood, then in some other way,” it seems as if both Les and Becky are constantly swimming upstream where meth and money seem to rule and where memory (“It touches the before of what I feel passing, like a memory of something that hasn’t yet happened.”) and family are more a liability than a comfort. While Becky writes long Muir-like poetic passages in her journal as she hikes the trails of the Parkway and defends the believed innocence of her friends, Les is inundated with meth lab busts and detective work trying to discover the culprit of the county’s latest vindictive hate crime. And so the story goes, until its conclusion. But unlike Rash’s other novels, this one isn’t like riding in a Model T Ford along a bumpy road, but instead is paved with touches of literary brilliance couched in a kind of reverence for the place where he was raised and now lives.
Rather than the usual dark tome consisting of “all light skystarved,” Above the Waterfall is written with “stilts of sunlight stalking the ground.” Where murmurations of flocking birds paint moving pictures in the sky and in our minds. And where Rash sends much needed rain to the roots of his characters. A world where Rash writes through the mind of his re-inhabitory character Becky: “I lean forward, palms on knees, and take deep steady breaths. I slowly raise my head. The meadow and trees have returned. It is here, and I am here …
a world become …
where wind and water
And, as readers, we are left with the “so-much of memory.” “Good memories that even now can heal.”