Following recent forays into Hollywood, where his adapted screenplays, Serena and The World Made Straight, flopped, Ron Rash, a winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, returns to the novel form.
His latest, Above The Waterfall, tackles environmentalism, small town politics, the ravages of drugs — both on families and the user themselves — and police ethics (and bribes).
It also has plenty of cliches: Sheriff Les Clary is laden down by excess baggage, blaming himself for the near-suicide of his now ex-wife, and only has three weeks to retirement. Naturally enough, that’s where the story picks up.
The chapters shift perspective from Les — like Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe transplanted to the Appalachians, he ruminates on his surroundings and if not the meaning of life then the way things are: “Spend a long period of time alone, especially if you’re someone who’s never been that social to begin with, and you find yourself craving solitude” — to Becky Style.
She’s a park ranger who carries her own baggage: she witnessed a mass school shooting, with which she still hasn’t come to grips, and after her grandparents’ deaths, she lets no one get close.
Theirs is a love story that is tested by the events of the next few weeks. What sort of relationship do they have, Les is asked at the end of the first chapter: “Accomplices. Maybe that was what we were.”
There are shifts from traditional prose to a poetic style, too, which may not be much of a surprise considering Rash has released four volumes of poetry. Becky keeps a notepad of poetry. Though it doesn’t really add much to the narrative, we get a glimpse into her way with words:
“I write Soothes the talon-rake of owl and hawk.
"I rewrite the line to balance the consonants.
"Heals the talon rake of hawk and eagle.”
Some readers may enjoy this sojourn into nature, while others, this one included, will feel it distracts from the slowly unfolding, increasingly gripping story.
There are two central crime stories that interrupt Les’s farewell to the force. First a meth bust.
He had seen how the drug can ravage — it’s like “time-lapse photography on a human body” — and here, in Rodney Greer’s trailer, he finds horror so grave that one of his officers takes off his badge and walks away, muttering that he’s getting as far from that place as he can.
Les, retiring early at the age of 51, has seen a lot down the years — he knows the way things work, it’s why he takes “pot bribes”.
His successor “would learn in time that a sheriff could bend the law for no other reason than what was law and what was right sometimes differed”.
He recalls the start of the meth plague and being out on a case, during which his then wife, Sarah had called three times, urging his instant reply.
“‘If you had seen what I saw today, what I had to deal with, instead of lounging in bed all afternoon, you’d have a damn reason to be depressed.’ Those were the first words I’d said to Sarah on the courthouse’s pay phone. The last, right before I’d slammed the phone back onto its cradle, ‘Go ahead and do it then.’”
The drug tale leads into the main crux of the novel. Someone has poured kerosene into the trout-fishing stream at Harold Tucker’s resort, above the waterfall.
There are a string of suspects, as expected in such a small town where everyone’s connected: Among others, Tucker himself; Gerald Blackwelder, an old friend who is not as innocent as Becky, who cares for him, realises; and CJ Gant, who had a troubled youth and who saved Les from having his arm taken off by a lawnmower.
It is to Rash’s credit that he can turn such a by-the-numbers whodunnit into a compelling literary thriller.
Above The Waterfall by Ron Rash €18.99.
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