Burning Bright by Ron Rash

Modern sensibilities have inched into the lives of the people who inhabit Ron Rash’s uneasy stories about Appalachia. They don’t live exactly the way their great-grandfathers did. They drive big pickups. They love the guitar solo that opens Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (they might even call it a masterpiece, if they were inclined to use that word). And they are ravaged not by the Civil War or the Great Depression but by the latest recession and methamphetamine.

But echoes of the past stubbornly cling to these hills, where tracts are being bought up by Floridians who gasp over the scenery without experiencing a bone-deep connection to the land. In clean, forthright, powerfully resonating prose, Rash assuredly provides a glimpse of lives often bent and broken. These are hard stories. These are hard people. But their troubles are never anything less than compelling.

A professor at Western Carolina University and a two-time O. Henry Prize winner, Rash has a feel for Appalachia and its ways, its rough justice, its loyalties. He understands that, despite the advent of the iPod, the Internet and Wal-Mart, the old ways are hard to shake. In the title story, set during a drought, a farmer drapes a black snake over a barbed-wire fence, imploring the heavens for rain in accordance with folk wisdom. In “The Corpse Bird”, a suburban father who should know better hears an owl’s call and leaps into action to make sure no one will die. His wife is horrified by his behavior, and his neighbors are angry. But he can’t help himself.

In his last novel, Serena — a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award — Rash created a she-monster of a protagonist, a cold-hearted murderer who slits an old woman’s throat without so much as a tickle of conscience. The characters in Burning Bright are flawed, too, but they’re not monsters, even when their actions lack compassion or are downright criminal. The worst you can say about them is “They’re trying.”

The grave robber in “Dead Confederates” knows he shouldn’t dig up soldiers’ coffins in search of valuable memorabilia, but he needs to pay off his mother’s hospital bill. Like him, widower Jesse of “Into the Gorge” steals onto U.S. Park Service land to harvest ginseng to sell, not because he wants to get rich but because he might end up in the hospital one day and have no way to pay the bill. His great-aunt was born on that land, had lived on and worked it for eight decades. How much of a birthright can anyone claim?

Other characters are flummoxed by family demands. The unhappy husband of “Falling Star”, frustrated as his wife attends night classes and slowly pulls away, tries to get her attention by slashing her tires. The pawn shop owner in “Back of Beyond” has mostly written off his family, and he silently accepts stolen goods from the addicts who stumble into his shop in droves before a snowfall. (“When the woman spoke Parson glimpsed the stubbed brown ruin inside her mouth. He could see her face clearly now, sunken cheeks and eyes, skin pale and furrowed. He saw where the bones, impatient, poked at her cheeks and chin.”) Yet when he learns that his drug-addled nephew has driven his elderly parents from their home, he acts swiftly to render justice.

The stories of Burning Bright aren’t all set in the present. They jump around in time like a catfish on the line, from the Depression-era “Hard Times”, in which a spark of compassion ignites in a farmer once eggs disappear from his henhouse. The collection’s finale, “Lincolnites”, in which the wife of a Union sympathizer encounters a hostile Confederate soldier, is set in the waning days of the war.

Yet the contemporary stories aren’t much different in atmosphere and mood. The hardscrabble mentality and tone remain, reflecting a down-but-not-out determination. You do what you must. You’re happy when you can be and unhappy otherwise. Life is that simple.

The narrator of “Waiting for the End of the World” — a divorced, ex-high-school English teacher who lives in a trailer and plays in a bar band to keep “the repo man away from my truck” — notes the way his neighbors come alive when he begins to play “Free Bird”. Their brief moments of joy make him believe that “Van Zant somehow found a conduit into the collective unconscious of his race… Maybe it’s just the music’s slow surging build. Or maybe something more — a yearning for the kind of freedom Van Zant’s lyrics deal with, a recognition of the human need to lay their burdens down. And maybe, for a few moments, being connected to the music and lyrics enough to actually feel unshackled, free and in flight.”

Rash, too, has found a conduit. He has written a memorable, if often brutal, elegy for a vanishing way of life.

RATING 8 / 10