Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Discovering Gold in the Back of Beyond: The Fiction of Ron Rash

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Discovering Gold in the Back of Beyond: The Fiction of Ron Rash

Article excerpt

Discovering Gold in the Back of Beyond: The Fiction of Ron Rash Nothing Gold Can Stay. By Ron Rash. Ecco, 2013. 256p. HB, $24.99.

THE TITLE OF RON RASH'S compelling new collection of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay, comes from Robert Frost's evocative poem pondering the bittersweet knowledge of life's impermanence. The poet marvels at the brief radiance of a forest's first spring leaves, knowing full well that its dimming has already begun: "Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay." And so, too, in Rash's fictional southern Appalachia, where any glimpse of a pastoral idyll is fleeting, if not completely fanciful, the forces of history and time are always emerging to shatter dreams of unchanging simplicity. While some of Rash's characters, particularly those living deep in the backwoods, far from the madding crowd (Rash is a Thomas Hardy enthusiast), might have "one foot in Eden" (as the title of one of his novels puts it), their other foot is placed squarely in the world of woe and suffering, a world shaped not only by large-scale social and economic forces but also by evils lurking in the recesses of the human heart. A phrase Rash sometimes uses to locate his fictional territory, "the back of beyond," suggests both the allures and the dangers of this country.

"The back of beyond" is also a good way more generally to describe southern Appalachia's representation in the American cultural imagination. If we think of the South, with its distinctive folkways, traditions, and history, as somehow "beyond" America, then southern Appalachia is beyond even that. Largely because the region remained isolated for so long, seemingly tucked away in a timeless zone where the march of history rarely intruded, the folk of the southern mountains often came to be seen by the rest of America (including Southerners) as somehow pure and undefined, though interpretations of that purity have differed wildly. According to some cultural legends, for instance, mountain folk were the largely unchanged remnants of original European settlers, living by the same customs and speaking with the same language as their Elizabethan forebears. By other legends, mountain folk were degraded by their isolation, devolving through inbreeding and poor living conditions into deformed and monstrous creatures, not all that different from the zombies of the television series The Walking Dead, who might be understood as descendants of the backwoods rapists in John Boorman's film version of James Dickey's novel Deliverance. In other words, The Walking Dead works as an allegory of what happens when hill people descend in large numbers upon Atlanta, The Beverly Hillbillies reimagined as apocalyptic nightmare.

Because southern Appalachia is perceived as so bizarrely different from the rest of America, literature about the region, particularly by outlanders, has characteristically focused on the dichotomy between the civilized and uncivilized, typically in narratives of urbane travelers making their way through the strange country. Not unexpectedly, as writers from the mountains developed their own literary traditions, mountain culture was represented more richly and complexly, often through the interrogation and revision of stereotypes. Joining a long line of Appalachian writers who have done this sort of cultural revisioning (for instance, among others, Grace Lumpkin, Jesse Stuart, Harriet Arnow, and Jayne Anne Phillips), Rash in his literature suggests that whatever its cultural distinctiveness, the faraway country of Appalachia is actually not that far away, at least in terms of everyday matters and human struggles. As a character in Rash's novel Saints at the River (2004) puts it, to drive from Columbia to the northwest mountains of South Carolina, despite this area being known as the state's "dark corner," is not a plunge into "the heart of darkness. It's four hours away, not four centuries. …

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