Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories
256 pp., $24.99
Nothing Gold Can Stay
With this new story collection (although I would argue it happened years ago), Ron Rash firmly establishes himself as a writer who excels at portraying anything Appalachian. He weaves the most honest, searing, heartbreaking doozies of stories, but as he pulls you into his characters' circumstances, he doesn't judge, nor does he mock. He holds them close to his heart as he writes, wishing better for them but accepting that he can't bless them with a fairy tale ending when there isn't one to be had.
Not all the stories will cause you distress (or discomfort), but they are guaranteed to surprise you a little, throw you off kilter, enough to haunt you for a while after. I'll wager it's the same feeling you felt when you first read O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi" (the one in which the husband buys tortoise shell combs for his wife's long, luxurious hair, only to find out, come Christmas Eve, his wife has sold her locks to buy him a platinum fob chain for the watch he had sold to buy the combs). That feeling in the pit of your stomach is familiar territory at the conclusion of each one of Rash's stories, and in my book, it means he's written it well. You, the reader, don't see it coming, or if you do, you don't know exactly how it will all pan out.
The descriptions in Rash's stories are precise, economical gems that create breathless moments of recognition. Here's one from his story "Where the Map Ends," about a farmer's run-in with two Civil War absconders. As the two men come up over the rise and see the farmhouse where they think they'll get some sort of respite, they're cranky and hungry. "The land steepened more and their lungs never seemed to fill. 'I heard that white folks up here don't have much,' the youth huffed, 'but you'd think they'd at least have air.' " Here's another moment, a bittersweet one in "Twenty-Six Days" when worried parents Skype with their daughter who's overseas in the military. She'll be coming home in twenty-six days, or at least they hope so.
Maybe it's because the picture's a little blurry, but one second I see something in Kerrie's face that reminds me of when she was a baby, then something else reminds me of her in first grade and after that high school. It's like the slightest flicker or shift makes one show more than the others. But that's not it, I realize. All those different faces are inside me, not on the screen, and I can't help thinking that if I remember every one, enough of Kerrie's alive inside me to keep safe the part that isn't.
I read "The Trusty" in The New Yorker months ago. I loved it then, and I love it now. Ostensibly, it's about a trusty (a convict on a chain gang who's gained the trust of his superiors) who, upon his daily trips to a farmer's well, meets a young wife dissatisfied with life and willing to plot escape with him. Only at the terrible end do you realize it's really a story about our desperate need for shortcuts, to attain the life we want right now, thank you very much. We'll do anything to escape pain or the consequences of our actions, even if it means employing dishonesty and betrayal. In the end, we're more mired than ever.
In all of the stories, you want to reach into the pages—to warn, soothe, or chide the characters—but it just isn't possible. You wait patiently by, much like watching your own children (or nieces or nephews) who refuse to learn from your mistakes or anyone else's. They stride gung-ho into the mistakes, and you can only wince and observe … and help them pick up the pieces.
In the title story, two drug addicts sneak into their employer's house in the dead of night, to steal an odd war collection they think might put them back in business. "Cherokee" chronicles the frantic attempts of a down-and-out couple testing their luck at the slot machines, to save their truck from being repossessed. In "Servant of History," a naïve and dapper gentleman named Wilson arrives in the Appalachian Mountains, fresh from London, with the sole purpose of finding and preserving ballads "lost to time in Britain"; alas, when he finally discovers them, he pays a steep price. In "A Sort of Miracle," two brothers-in-law offer faulty advice to their sister's husband. He blindly trusts them, hoping they've learned something from watching all those hours of medical miracles on television.
Rash doesn't embellish. He simply illuminates life, as it is—humans, as we are. And without being didactic, he shows how it could have been different, if the characters hadn't lingered, hadn't trusted, hadn't succumbed. Which all sounds bleak and uninviting, but instead offers us some comfort that, yes, this is the life we recall. We understand life is precious and unpredictable, and perhaps if nothing gold can stay, as the title suggests, we can at least hold onto the gold remembrances of life when we're living in the dark valleys.
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