Books | May 2016
Celebrated as one of America’s great modern authors, Ron Rash is truly a contemporary master of both the Southern gothic tradition and the juxtaposition of poetry with prose. In his recent novel Above the Waterfall, Mr. Rash seamlessly meshes elaborate poetic verse with captivating prose, each lending themselves perfectly to the feeling of his familiar Appalachian backdrop. He is able to achieve an almost spiritual connection to the land for his characters while also exploring the darkness and violence that permeate the tale.
“Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines,” he writes. The combination of softness and beauty with darkness and strangeness are enticing and echo sweetly the Southern literature of decades long past. The sensory descriptions offered by Mr. Rash allow his readers to be in the environment with his characters. And for anyone who knows the sound of cicadas, this detail brings the mountain world quickly to life. Mr. Rash always manages to find a way to make even the most familiar detail new and vibrant for his audience.
Above the Waterfall unfolds the broken tale of Becky and Les who are somewhat unlikely lovers, each with their own dark past to unveil. Becky is a park ranger and Les is a soon-to- be retired sheriff, but the two find commonality in a number of ways, not the least of which is the scenic beauty that surrounds them. But, these two central characters are not the only ones taking in the rustic outdoor scenery. This small mountain town is home to a resort, and when trouble erupts between resort guests and a certain local, things really start to get interesting. The sheriff has some even deeper, darker corners to explore before he can retire, too. Corruption in the mountains and the test of his relationship with Becky take Les to new levels of self-examination and hyper-awareness of his mountain home. Themes of past mistakes, tragedy, corruption, and betrayal are all woven masterfully into the tale.
After a beautiful opening that is written with an artist’s grace, the first chapter begins in the voice of Les. “Where does any story really begin? One thing can’t happen unless other things happened earlier. I could say this story began with an art class I took in ninth grade, or broken promises, one by Becky Shytle and one by me, or that it began when a shirtsleeve got caught by a hay baler’s tines,” Rash writes. This is an important thought to begin on because the book is an exploration of both past and present. The chapters alternate between point of view, allowing readers to see the world through Les’s eyes as well as Becky’s. There are moments of joy and moments of sadness both fueling the fire of the novel’s plot while also providing reflection on the past.
For readers who have spent any amount of time in the grandeur of the Appalachians, Rash’s lush descriptions will bring memories flooding back. While the poetic style of many of the descriptions gives the setting depth and dimension, Mr. Rash also employs enough restraint to strike an ideal balance. It is nearly impossible to read Above the Waterfall without comparing it mentally to the timeless works of William Faulkner. The flowing abstract style coupled with the authentic quality of the plot and characters make the comparison easy to see for readers of Southern literature.
Mr. Rash has also been compared to Carson McCullers in his writing style and thematic choices. His work is honest, beautiful, at times tragic, but always genuine and purposeful. He is also the author of Serena, which was made into a movie, as well as four other prize-winning novels including One Foot in Eden and Saints at the River. Mr. Rash is also widely respected for his masterful poetry and short stories.
Modern Southern Gothic
Ron Rash’s lyrical prose and poetic descriptions perfectly capture the
natural beauty of North Carolina’s mountains in Above the Waterfall
Story by Shana Raley-Lusk