Ron Rash lives in the Appalachian Mountains and they form the back drop of his short story collection Burning Bright. I am probably not the best person to tell you how well he captures the area in his stories, seeing as I couldn’t even point to it on a map*, but I was struck by a sense of place, by a particular location and a feeling of authenticity. I may not have seen the Appalachian Mountains but I believe in them now, I can feel they are real.
The stories leave you with the impression of a place constricted by its environment. Of a rugged landscape that in turn leaves its inhabitants rough at the edges and given to matter-of-fact thinking. Of a place that slows time as it flows through it. That resists complication. That is populated with people who will not replace what they can fix. Of a place that may not have all the answers but certainly has far fewer questions. So strongly is this sense of place evoked that I would not have blinked if I had been told this was a novel and that the binding character was the Appalachian Mountains themselves.
Thankfully such a postmodern approach to presentation is not used, largely, I feel, because such tactics would be an anathema to the Appalachian Mountains in general, and Ron Rash in particular. This is a very traditional collection. In a time when the short story seems to have been reduced to little more than an experimental playground for cold-hearted pioneers it is refreshing to see such a solid, beautifully crafted collection of stories. It is a collection where a line like “Hartley carried four burlap pokes stuffed with galax” will float by you like an oak leaf on a slow river: and despite my not knowing what three of those eight words actually mean, I still found them to be true.
Burning Bright is traditional but it is not old-fashioned. In fact the stronger stories are the ones set in the present or near past. Back of Beyond, with its meth addicts, pawn shops and world-weary sheriff would, in other hands, be overly bleak and clouded with violence. Ron Rash breathes humanity into every word. He shows you a world that is, if not actually geographically, metaphorically on our doorsteps. The lack of distance means we cannot make demons or heroes of his characters. We have to face them for what they are, slight variations of ourselves.
Any Cop?: A collection of short stories that stands up to comparison to Steinbeck or even Chekhov; accomplished, honest, and true.
*Unless the map had contours, in which case my A level Geography would see me right.