The Ron Rash Reader

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Although he’s been writing for three decades–and winning major prizes as well–I only recently caught up with the work of Ron Rash. Thanks to the University of South Carolina Press, which sent me a copy of THE RON RASH READER, I’ve been able to read some of his fiction and poetry (plus four non-fiction articles). I also learned a lot about the author from Randall Wilhelm, who edited the READER and contributed a 32-page introduction.
Rash writes almost exclusively about the Appalachian region of western North Carolina. As Anna Higgans explains (in Wilhelm’s intro), “Rash has tramped the Appalachian landscape, poking around in cairns of old homesteads, looking down dilapidated wells, studying old barb wire fences, trying to sense the lives lived. He has spent a lot of time, too, walking among the dead, tracing his fingers along the names and dates on crumbling stones, imagining the lives and deaths that brought them to that place.”

Above all, Rash is able to breathe life into a wide range of characters: grandmothers and grandsons, eccentric Southern Gothic types (such as Larry in The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth who nearly kills himself by posing as Christ on a rickety cross his ex-wife, a carpenter, built to help him advertise his used-car lot), mill workers, farmers, drug-dealers, environmentalists and more, many more.

Rash is also a skillful story-teller, moving language around with ease and skill, making for vivid, compulsive reading. Although some of his tales are steeped in blood and tragedy, almost all of them show a masterful comic touch. It’s not every writer who can make you both laugh and weep within the space of a few pages.

As Wilhem points out, Rash’s main focus is on “the respect and holiness of the natural world and the complex interrelationship between humans and the land upon which their lives depend...It is Rash’s fierce confrontation with the old pull of human blood and its endless struggle with pain, loss, and tragedy, punctuated by moments of grace and beauty, that infuses his work with a richness that is the mark of a distinctly powerful writer.”

One of Rash’s earlier novels, SERENA, has just been turned into a film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

Just finished the book; can’t wait to see the film.