The Richardson Review
Lurching Toward Redemption
Story Emma & Tom Richardson
Nothing Gold Can Stay
By Ron Rash
Harper Collins, $24
Comprising fourteen short stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay is the tenth work of fiction and fifth collection of short stories by North Carolina writer Ron Rash. Rash is fast becoming one of the most accomplished and acclaimed fiction writers in the United States, having twice been a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, twice a recipient of the O. Henry Prize, the 2010 winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a New York Times bestselling novelist.
Rash commands the place he knows so well as the settings for all these stories: the foothills and mountains of Appalachia, with references to the North Carolina towns of Sylva, Glenville, Bryson City, Canton, Asheville, Blowing Rock, Boone, and Valle Crucis, and to Cleveland, Jackson, and Haywood counties. Rash offers a variety of settings in time, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present; furthermore, many of the stories are set against the backdrop of war — the Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the war in Afghanistan — which imbues the stories with a pervasive yet subtle violence.
Most of Rash’s characters live on the margins, working “temp jobs” on construction crews, cutting firewood, spreading concrete, clerking at the Bi-Lo, waitressing, cleaning floors, processing chickens at the poultry plant, stocking at a grocery store. Most of them work hard, but disaster is often just around the corner — sometimes self-imposed, sometimes by bad luck or circumstance. “They don’t make it easy for a mountain boy, do they?” is a question asked of Jody in “Those Who Are Dead,” and it’s a question that seems to hang over all of the stories’ main characters — whether male or female, young or old, respectable or reprobate. Indeed, “nothing gold can stay.”
EMMA: I can think of only two books in the past few years I’ve read straight through two times in a row: Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay. Gosh, Ron Rash can write like a house afire — not so much because he uses figurative language that I love so well (a character “laid out on a bed deader than a tarred stump” is one of my favorites, as are “Dogwoods bloomed small white stars” and “He thought again of his university dons, each monotoned lecture like a Lethean submerging”), or because he offers a panoply of varied and memorable characters. Rather, it’s because Rash writes about things that matter.
Recently in one of my creative writing classes my students and I pondered a statement by David Foster Wallace: “Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists.” Rash’s stories rarely end happily, and they resonate with irony, but many of Rash’s characters work toward “redeeming what’s wrong” in a broken and chaotic world by startling acts of sacrifice. In “Dowry,” set in 1866, Pastor William Boone’s act of atonement allows the daughter of Colonel Ethan Davidson (“Give me back a hand and I’ll be ready to forgive”) to marry a man who has fought for the Union. In another story, “Twenty-Six Days,” parents take on second jobs cleaning a doctor’s office; they put a night’s earnings of $20 each into an envelope to give to their soldier daughter when — and if — she returns home from Afghanistan to enroll at N.C. State, where someone is “matching up the tuition costs with the army’s college fund.” Rash also employs a wonderful variety of moods and tones. One story in particular, “A Servant of History,” stands apart from the others in the collection with its hilarious depiction of James Wilson, a young English university graduate employed by the “English Folk Dance and Ballad Society” just after World War I, who comes to collect ballads from Appalachia. Smug and condescending toward “the new world’s Calibans,” Wilson ventures into an isolated home where the Bible and Clans of Scotland are a family’s only books. Is there biblical symbolism in what happens to Wilson at the end, Tom? Can we substitute the mountaineer’s “hot poker” for the seraph’s “burning coal”?
TOM: Yes, of course; we can’t ignore the allusion to the call of Isaiah ben Amoz (see Isaiah 6, dear readers). But what are we to make of it? That is a question that Rash’s stories often leave us with, and I mean that as a positive characteristic of his work. The interesting twists of plot, the engaging characters (although not all likeable), and the complex subtleties of the details combine to challenge the reader to think of the workings of the world from various, and perhaps new, perspectives.
This is a brilliant collection of stories. Rash explores human character in the context of war and particular historical circumstances in fresh and meaningful ways. He also gives a nod to the influences of literary history: obviously to Robert Frost in the title and to Robert Morgan in the dedication, but also in echoes of Hawthorne, Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Frazier and even Isaiah ben Amoz, among others. And, Emma, if I can take issue with you on a small point, I think that most of the stories conclude in modified happiness for someone, although in truth the stories rarely end at all.