Ron Rash captures unforgiving terrain

Gina Webb / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution /

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Ron Rash (Ecco, $24.99)

Like Emily Dickinson, a poet famed for her oblique approach, Ron Rash is in the business of concealing the truth.

“Tell it slant,” Dickinson once recommended. “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” Since his first book appeared in 1994, Rash’s portraits of life in the mountains of western North Carolina have done just that.

Whether chronicling the loss of the region’s lush natural resources in “Serena” and “Saints at the River,” or exploring the effects of that loss in searing short fiction such as 2010’s “Burning Bright,” his starkly beautiful prose has mapped the heart and soul of southern Appalachia in a way few writers of his generation can match.

Perhaps because he has lived most of his life in the area his ancestors have occupied since the 1700s, Rash rarely concerns himself with characters who live elsewhere.

That is not to say the people of Sylva and Blowing Rock and Canton don’t want out — they do, sometimes desperately, even murderously. A splendid new collection of Rash’s short fiction, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” provides 14 front-row seats to their escape attempts, using Dickinson’s stealth technique to perfection.

A star pupil who’s struggled for years to get into college finds himself enmeshed in his ex-girlfriend’s new life as a meth addict in their hometown. A couple facing mounting debts gamble their last $150 at a casino hoping to change their luck. An embittered, one-handed Civil War veteran refuses to let his daughter marry a man who fought for the enemy — unless he agrees to a ghoulish dowry. A British musicologist travels deep into the hills in search of old English ballads and finds a “beldame,” a wizened old granny whose long-lost songs offer a cruel reminder of their shared ancestry.

The stories seem simple on the face of it, but there are minefields galore here, embedded so deftly and deeply into the plot that each one registers only as a hushed, looming inevitability. Concealed beneath Rash’s often unadorned, nearly Shaker prose and modest, aw-shucks language is the barely audible ticking of a bomb about to go off that leaves a blinding truth in its wake.

In the title story, two Oxy addicts who grew up together plot to rob an old man who once made the mistake of showing them his valuable, if shameful, war souvenirs. Once sold, the loot should secure more than a temporary peace from their daily drug cravings. But their muted pangs of conscience and uneasy conversations, the narrator’s memories, the hint that dishonor is a place you don’t return from — are all quietly bundled into a few deadly hours.

“The Trusty” is an unshackled member of a chain gang on a dusty road in the 1930s who’s about to make a run for it. He’s worked enough scams in his time to gain anyone’s confidence, from the “bull guard” to the employers whose “Help Wanted” signs he reads as “Help Yourself” to the sullen farm wife he charms into helping him escape.

Blink and you’ll miss the clues Rash drops that suggest this time won’t be so easy, but that’s part of what makes his deceptively simple tales so rich they invite a second reading, and a third.

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