Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Comments Off on Lundgren’s Book Lounge: “Something Rich and Strange,” by Ron Rash
In the literary world “regional” often implies diminishment. This despite the indisputable truth that many of our most brilliant writers never left a very small world in their fictional creations; think Garcia Marquez and the mythical world of Macondo and Latin America or Faulkner and the characters and stories from Yoknapathawpa County, Mississippi or Jim Harrison’s tales from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Calling these writers “regional” as a form of criticism is absurd; their genius lies in bringing us, their readers, stories from a small world that expose universal truths, meaningful to any reader, anywhere.
And now we must add to this venerable roster of “regional” writers, the name of Ron Rash, whose new collected stories, Something Rich and Strange, never ventures beyond the borders of Wataupa County in the western mountains of North Carolina, in the process crystalizing the contemporary cultural tensions between the old and the new south. Rash is a virtuoso, moving deftly from the travails of a cover band singer who explains, that’s “…why I’m here from seven to two four nights a week, getting it done in the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd, alimony and keeping the repo man away from my truck,” to the very dark side of the methamphetamine scourge that has devastated parts of Appalachia. His stories travel from the battlefields of the American Civil War to a contemporary world where the conflicts between the traditional and the modern are daily being waged. And he does it all in language that is carefully exquisite, reminding the reader on every page that here is a writer who agonizes over words in the interest of getting it right. There is not a false note sounded in four hundred plus pages of breathtaking fiction.
There is an intensity here, as when the very poor and fiercely prideful farmer responds to an accusation that his dog is stealing eggs: “… the blade whisked across the hound’s windpipe. The dog didn’t cry or snarl. It merely sagged in (his) grip. Blood darkened the road. ‘You’ll know for sure now’ (the farmer) said as he stood up.”
But all is not darkness; Rash has a penchant for brilliantly and hilariously capturing the absurdity of the former Confederacy: “One of the great sins of the sixties was introducing drugs to the good-ole-boy element of Southern society. If you were some Harvard psychology professor like Timothy Leary, drugs might well expand your consciousness, but they worked just the opposite way for people like Sammy, shriveling the brain to a reptilian level of aggression and paranoia.”
Rash’s work has always been lauded by critics. Perhaps the publication of this wondrous collection and the release of a movie version of his novelistic masterpiece, Serena (in Feb. 2015, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), will garner him the attention he merits. Call him a “regional” writer if you must: this is a major writer, deserving of the widest possible audience.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.