Ron Rash’s sixth novel is something of a two hander, narrated in the first person by a sheriff, Les Clary, weeks away from retirement, winding up his business and thinking about what comes next, and Becky Shytle, a somewhat poetic park ranger who is also Clary’s slightly on-off love interest. Clary is the kind of ageing Gary Cooper you’d expect to root for (although Rash is canny enough to make Clary the kind of man who accepts bribes for a quiet life – something his replacement frowns upon – and we know that here is a man of ethical complication), and Shytle is decent, wants to see the best in people, is somewhat troubled as the result of having found herself in the midst of a school shooting as a child and is given to composing poems about the world about her (Rash himself is a poet and this is the first novel of his that I’ve read in which that is brought much more to the fore).
The meat and two veg of the novel concerns a game reserve where tourists pay to come fish salmon, and Gerard, a local, who likes to fish gratis on their land because that is what he did in the old days and he won’t abide these new fangled trespassing laws. There is something of a contretemps and then, the next thing you know, someone has poured diesel in the water and killed a lot of fish. Is it Gerald? The reserve owners certainly think so and Clary isn’t altogether inclined to disagree. But Gerald disputes it and Becky agrees with Gerald and so Les pitches in to see who’s who and what’s what. There is a subplot or two concerning local meth labs that you know will circle around and neatly dovetail with the main plot (I’m sure it’s not too much of a spoiler to let that admission out the gates here) and a similar run of environmental concerns you’d find in a CJ Box ‘Joe Pickett’ novel.
But mentioning CJ Box here is pertinent. CJ Box is what is sometimes pejoratively known as a commercial writer. In that he fashions a page turner and is good at it. Normally, when we talk about Ron Rash, we compare him to the likes of Daniel Woodrell and, to a lesser extent, Cormac McCarthy. Above the Waterfall pushes him more into CJ Box territory – however Rash remains a literary writer (I’m sure that fans of CJ Box would not entirely rub along well with all of the poetry in Above the Waterfall – just as I wouldn’t really expect too many people who voted for the UK to leave the EU to be watching too many subtitled movies). This little dichotomy pushed something to the fore for me, though, and made something clear that I’ve struggled with in the past when it comes to the books of Ron Rash. When I think of a writer like Daniel Woodrell, I tend to think ‘here is a writer who did his thing until the world caught up with him’; with Ron Rash, I suspect he tries quite hard (or harder than Woodrell) to fashion books that would sell (and I’m not saying this out of that snarky ‘whyever would you want books to sell’ punk ethic) – but it makes for a slightly uneasy commingling of Woodrell-type fiction with the fiction of someone like Nicholas Sparks (in that there is something – some slight thing – that is ever so hokey). By which I suppose we are saying that sometimes we sense Rash overplays his hand. The contrast between Becky’s denser language (eg
“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. All else is ready for the night except night itself.”)
and Len’s folksier, “Where does any story really begin? One thing can’t happen unless other things happened earlier”, is probably the best example of that here in that it jars somewhat – and it takes a while for the novel to hit its stride.
And so, the reader – or this reader, at any rate – is left with a nagging sense of frustration, a similar nagging sense of frustration that we’ve had before with Rash’s books, that is constituted of the belief that Rash has it in him to be great… but he isn’t quite there yet.
Any Cop?: It’s a fine novel. A good enough novel. But it isn’t quite the great novel that we suspect Rash has in him.