Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tragic Songs of Life

Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador. 230 pages. $13.00.

The characters in Ron Rash’s stories work hard for a living, and they have the scars to prove it. Residing in and around Boone, N.C. — not far from where Rash teaches English at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee — they generally live in trailers, fixer-uppers or ramshackle homes, eke out a paycheck-to-paycheck existence at paper and pulp mills, and suffer the burdens of bad backs, severed limbs, and alcohol and drug addiction, along with the ordinary tragedies of bad marriages, miscarriage, murder and plain old death.

Some are outright losers, some work hard and play fair, and life deals cruel blows to either. Some endure; a few prevail.

The best stories here are as spare and concise as a good country song by Johnny Cash or the Louvin Brothers or Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen, or old mountain hymns like “This World is Not My Home.”

The stories exist in something of a time warp, where you’re never really sure what era you’re in until someone drops a stray detail. In any event, you watch these stories as they unfold, whether they happened last week or a hundred years ago.

There’s a strong tension to them, too, and sometimes you can feel it from the opening line.

One story begins in an emergency room: “Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand. She stares at them as if they were a bad throw of the dice.”

There are a lot of bad throws, but Rash doesn’t really traffic in ordinary fatalism, where people are just straws in the wind, knocked around by forces beyond their control. Rather, bad luck here arrives in both forms: the kind you don’t deserve, and the kind you earn.

In “Blackberries in June,” a hard-working young couple who have managed to make a good start in life are the object of resentment of their less-stable kin and find themselves pressured by family tragedy into giving up all they’ve worked for. In “Honesty,” a married professor tries to break his writer’s block by taking up a cruel idea of his wife’s: arranging a date with a lonely woman he finds in the personals only so he can write about her — a date that reveals more about him than his quarry.

Sometimes, facing the inevitable, Rash’s people don’t lose faith so much as they regain it in odd, unexpected ways. In the title story, an aging science teacher struggling against mental illness startles his wife and son both by taking up Pentecostalism, finding in that old-time religion not easy comfort but solutions that can only be reached “in places where only the heart can go.”

Some attempts at personal salvation can be a dead end, as in “Cold Harbor.” Anna, a former Army nurse, is tormented by bad dreams and post-traumatic stress in the years following the Korean War. Hoping to save her own sanity, she visits the soldier whose life she saved, only to find his life is too pitiful for him to feel any gratitude at all.

“Some grief is like barbed wire that’s been wrapped around a tree,” the soldier’s mother tells Anna. “The longer it’s there the deeper the barbs go, the closer to the tree’s heart.”

A handful of stories don’t work, especially “Pemberton’s Bride,” a kind of Old Testament tale of evil women, murder and vengeance that goes on a little too long and without much purpose. Rash’s strength is in swiftness and brevity, in tight, focused stories set at the raw, ragged edge of make-or-break and ending just short of a resolution, leaving you dazed, not real sure of your bearings, or what just hit you.

P.S. - The last story, “Speckled Trout,” is about the brief rise and tragic fall of Travis, a young punk who steals some marijuana plants from some very rough characters. It’s a fine, fatalistic story, and ­— as I discovered just this weekend — it blossomed into an even better novel: last year’s The World Made Straight. Here, Travis not only survives his ordeal, but does some growing up under the mentorship of Leonard, a high school teacher turned dope dealer. Part of his education involves learning about the horrible fate of his Civil War ancestors, and these strands of past and present intertwine with growing interest and suspense. The novel isn’t without its contrivances, occasional cliches or feel-good TV-movie scenes, but taken as a whole it’s a powerful drama about the costs of survival in a violent world. Read both.


JAbel said...

Reading this triggered memories of a young West Virginia? writer from the 80's who had a collection of short stories published that dealt with hardscrabble lives in the hills.He took his own life at a young age and all I can think of is Bruce D' something.I thought I had the book here but can't find it.

RW said...

Breece D'J Pancake?

JAbel said...

That's the writer!I recall on the old NYTimes forums years ago a brief number of posts about him.Thanks Rodney