I’ve visited Charleston, South Carolina, a few times. It’s a beautiful city: old, by US standards, retaining some of the aesthetic quirks of British and French colonialism. There’s narrow cobblestone streets, Art Deco buildings and elaborate white mansions. Strangers on the street ask about your day. And there’s the location: the lower half of the country, on the Atlantic, meaning that if ever there is cause to be despondent, it’s got nothing to do with the weather.
It’s no surprise this idyllic little spot never turns up in a Ron Rash story. This collection, like several of Rash’s earlier collections and novels, is set exclusively in the Carolinas, from North to South, from the Appalachian Mountains to the coast. Never do we get a charming view of the place. These fourteen stories give us theft, betrayal, vengeance, idiocy, ageing, and abuse and show us people for whom all hope has been vanquished. But your personal proximity to the Carolinas, as a reader, is inconsequential. Why this book deserves a wider audience is because it’s tied not to geography but politics. Rash is a master of the American short story — less meat than Alice Munro, less absurdity than George Saunders, but never the poorer for it. In this collection he introduces his America. It makes for thrilling, sometimes terrifying, reading. Thrilling because his stories are like a galloping horse you’ve been yanked up onto; they are sharp, sometimes coldly humorous, and they never give too much away. Terrifying in the sense that, if his depiction is at all accurate, the world’s dominant economy has a lot to worry about.
Rash’s America is a mean place. The mills are closing, the Mom n’ Pop stores are closing. What does 21stst Century America make and sell? Meth, mainly. It sends young people to foreign wars and then has TV pundits call them vulgar for fighting. What value there is left is wrung from harsh, hand-to-mouth work (building a road on a chain gang, cleaning blood from the carpet of a doctor’s surgery) for which there is little return. These towns, these counties, this country, used to be a worker’s paradise, where people invented things, discovered things, produced things. That’s all over now. Wherever the future is, it certainly isn’t here.
In the midst of all this desolation, a reader cries out for a bit of hope. Rash knows this. What he does with that information, though, is evidence of his higher skill. There is hope in the goodness of people, Rash tells us. In ‘Twenty-Six Days’, a small-town janitor and his wife work day and night to quell the anxiety that comes from having a child overseas on the front line. For this couple, hope is a given. When you’re mopping up vomit for a living, what else is there? In other stories, characters are slowly brought out of their vulgarity, like a lens being gently pulled into focus. We start to feel for them, root for them, cherish them. And suddenly we can’t believe we ever doubted the goodness in human beings.
But what hope Rash gives us he just as quickly takes away. Many of the stories centre on a mission. Keep going, you can hear Rash telling his characters, keep pushing, just a little farther. You just have to reach the end of the railway tracks, you just have to steal that old man’s gold teeth and sell them, you just have to hear your daughter’s voice over Skype one more time. By about the third or fourth story of this collection, a cruelty sets in. You start to think: this isn’t going to end well. In ‘Cherokee’, a couple drive a beat-up truck they can’t afford to a casino on a Native American reservation. They win big on a slot machine and spend the night in a fancy hotel room. When they wake up, though, the spectre of their normal lives — laying cement, working a supermarket check-out — returns. Hope’s lost. Nothing gold can stay.
It takes a seasoned writer to make a reader turn 180 degrees like this, and do it with so few pages and such black and white prose. Two decades since his first collection, Rash is that writer. He is well-practiced and precise; few stories are over 20 pages and they don’t need to be. His spare writing reveals a great empathy for his characters, and for his country, as both slowly lose the ability to control their own destiny. In a perfect world — an idyllic place, like Charleston, where sunshine and Southern hospitality are a constant — they’d give this writer the marketing heft of Munro or Saunders. And then they’d give him a literary prize, and they’d point to Nothing Gold Can Stay for the proof.
Published in Crikey.