Before we get stuck into the new book by Ron Rash, a writer whose stock has been steadily rising for a couple of years now, garnering comparisons, particularly in the short story arena, with the likes of William Trevor and Raymond Carver, let’s have a quick Bookmunch resume shall we? We came to Rash through Benjamin Judge’s complementary review of Burning Bright on this very site and, though we could see its virtues, we weren’t quite as blown away as Mr Judge had been for a number of reasons (which we’ll get into soon enough). Fast forward a couple of years to The Cove and the clouds parted: The Cove is a tremendous novel, full of great writing, interesting characters, unusual narrative developments and, at the very least, drawing fair comparison with the likes of Daniel Woodrell. The Cove was so good that it had me looking at his (surprisingly) extensive back catalogue wondering where to jump in (a couple of Rash devotees I know single out Serena and The World Made Straight for especial praise). And so to Nothing Gold Can Stay, the latest short story collection, and one thing is almost immediately evident – Rash is simply not as good a short story writer as he is a novelist and he is not as good a short story writer as the critical community seems keen to convince us he is. The Trevor/Carver comparisons do not help Rash at all.
The biggest problem with Nothing Gold Can Stay is Rash’s reliance on what you might call a typical short story device: the old ‘disconcerting thing on the last page that doesn’t quite make sense but leaves the reader with a sense of unease’. Rash does this a lot. One or two stories a collection leaving you feeling you didn’t quite get what went on is fine. A whole handful more than that and all you have is a consistent feeling of dissatisfaction. The device also serves to undermine and/or strip the punch from stories that had, up until that point, been working just fine, thank you very much. Take collection opener ‘The Trusty’ as an example. A trusty, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is a prisoner granted more freedom as a result of trustworthy behaviour. Sinkler, the trusty in question, is sent up and down the road ahead of a chaingang in search of water. On one search, he chances across a farm and is beguiled by a young girl who thinks she can help him escape. One intricate and compelling courtship later the two of them are on the run and then, before you know it, they are momentarily split, there is a distant whistle, a handprint, a rifle safety and – is he robbed? Are the two of them caught? Who knows? The eponymous second story concerns a robbery but again the climax is marred by an uneasy scene in a roadside 7/11 where a strange shopkeeper behaves weirdly for no apparent reason at all. A later story, ‘Where the Map Ends’, concerns two slaves on the run who chance across a barn and a farmer who is willing to help – within reason and at a cost – but the price the farmer asks is not explained to the reader (and, you might say, isn’t the point – the point is quite possibly about the slave who gets away and the choices a man has to make to be free – but as it follows hard on the heels of stories in which the irresolute and the unexplained triumph over clarity, it becomes a sore point). Similarly, in ‘Twenty Six Days’ which tells the story of a poor couple who are working all the hours God sends in order to put some money away for their daughter Kerrie who is serving in Afghanistan, there is a slight, one of the professors at the nearby university has said something (about selling books rather than reading them, I think) but it isn’t entirely clear and, again, the reader has to spend more time parsing what is going on which has a distancing effect which works against the reading experience (imho).
As with a great many short story collections, there are stories that pack a punch – ‘Something Rich and Strange’ is a doozy (a young girl is swept away by the current of a river, a member of the search and rescue is haunted by her underwater corpse), as is ‘Cherokee’ (small town couple arrive at the limits of comprehension of their own good and bad luck), ‘Servant of History’ (naïve English student heads into the Appalachian mountains to study folksongs and comes a cropper) and ‘Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out’ (a sort of veterinary rumination on growing older) – and stories that feel almost wilfully misjudged (‘A Sort of Miracle’ – which concerns a guy called Denton and his two brothers in law inexplicably heading into the mountains, ‘inexplicably, because he hates his brothers in law and there isn’t any apparent reason for them to be with him other than they provide the necessary gear change for the climax – we’re looking at you). The veering between the chaff and the wheat does settle somewhat in the latter half of the book (there is a strong run of good stories but given the wobbliness of the opening you do read with half an eye closed, as if expecting a misfire at any moment).
To conclude then – it would seem we are of the opinion that Rash is a better novelist than short story writer. Nothing Gold Can Stay feels like a better collection than Burning Bright (so if you liked Burning Bright it’s highly likely you’ll think this is the cat’s pyjamas). For this reviewer, though, the jury is still out.
Any Cop?: Lacks the wow factor of The Cove and doesn’t pack as much bang per buck as, say, Steve Earle’s Doghouse Roses or Daniel Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album.