There’s an art to exclusion, to what a writer decides to leave out of sentences and story lines. Ron Rash is a careful master of that art, withholding key facts and actions so that the reader must fill them in. While reading his fiction, we have to become Rash’s characters, figure out what they might do in a situation, consider what we might do, bring ourselves into the room.
That process is required a number of times in Rash’s lovely, essential new collection of stories set in the South called “Nothing Gold Can Stay” after the Robert Frost poem. Rash isn’t delivering puzzles, by any means; his prose is elegant, suggestive, and Hardyesque, particularly as he attends to the visuals of a drowning girl’s final prismatic thought-images, for example, or a great-grandmother with “a body shrunken to a child’s stature.”
He isn’t playing tricks. But his openings don’t fully spell out the who and the where; he doesn’t provide establishing shots. Nor does he explain his characters. And the resolutions of scenes, and of entire stories, tend toward ellipsis, a carefully gauged ambiguity that can leave the reader retracing events in active thought: What really just happened?
“The Trusty,” the opening story and one of the best in the collection, brilliantly veers off from a definitive ending. Like many of the pieces here, it is about the question of trust between people and who is zooming whom. A prisoner, a con man named Sinkler, meets a farm wife when he uses her well to get water for a chain gang doing road work nearby. He quickly sees her as his ticket out. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it’s not easy to trust anyone in Rash’s book, no matter how small the financial stakes, no matter how clear the moral choices seem. What happens between Sinkler and the woman is a knotted tangle of human interdependence, one that Rash presents with intensity but doesn’t judge.
Rash tends to portray people at pivotal moments, when their everyday paths — to allude to another Frost poem — diverge, forcing them to make high-stakes choices. His characters — Sinkler and the farm wife, two slaves migrating to Tennessee during the Civil War in “Where the Map Ends,” unemployed brothers helping their cranky brother-in-law in the Smoky Mountains in “A Sort of Miracle” — are drawn to kindness at these crossroads but often seduced by more primitive, self-centered options. We don’t quite know whom the good guys are as “Nothing Gold Can Stay” gracefully moves from tale to tale, or even if there are any good guys. Among the thieves, condescending academics, drug addicts, and gamblers, there are moments of humanity, but they are fleeting.
Violent twists mark almost every story in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and they are unexpected and haunting. Sometimes the violence triggers the main action, more often it serves as final punctuation. In “A Servant of History,” a British scholar goes to North Carolina in 1922 in search of old ballads that have disappeared in England but may still survive in the Appalachian Mountains. He is tone deaf to the local culture, cluelessly insulting everyone he meets. He returns home to much acclaim with a lost song written in his calfskin ledger, but also with an excruciating and rather symbolic injury. He is a snob, an idiot, and a victim.
Humor appears every now and then in the stories, which are, on the whole, more stoic in tone. That scholar with the ballad? He botches the name of his tour guide, who tells him, “I a go ba rafe,” which he hears as “Iago Barafe” instead of “I go by Rafe.” He calls him Barafe throughout the story, thinking that “his guide, obviously illiterate, had a name retained from Elizabethan drama.” The entirety of “A Sort of Miracle” has a funny and ironic spin, as a pair of slackers find that their many hours watching TV medical dramas come in handy, but, sadly, don’t quite save the day. They may be TV smart, but they’re not capable in the world.
Rash, who was born in South Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University, is the author of five novels, including “Serena” and “The Cove,” as well as four other story collections and three books of poetry. He is in charge of every line in this new book, at a peak of control and insight. He specifically captures the Southern idiom and Appalachian regional sensibility beautifully, from the Civil War through the 1920s and 1960s to now, but there are always human beings behind the accents. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is lyrical and honest, grounded in place yet sweeping in scope.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.