RON Rash’s new short story collection is his best book since his 2008 novel Serena, a tale of newlyweds in Depression-era North Carolina that has been turned into a Hollywood film to be released later this year.
Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories
By Ron Rash
Canongate, 256pp, £9.99
If that brings more readers to the book, don’t forget that it began as a fierce and breathtaking novel, one of the greatest to come out of america in recent memory.
Nothing Gold Can Stay is excitingly versatile, covering periods in time from the American Civil War to the present day, and ranging in mood from wryly comic to brutal. The 14 stories are united by clean, tough specificity, courtly backwoods diction, and a capacity for sending shivers down the spine.
They’re also tied together by the haunting evanescence summoned by Robert Frost in his poem for which the book is named:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The collection includes two stories from Ecotone, a North Carolina literary journal “that seeks to reimagine place.” In one of them, “Cherokee,” Rash reimagines a local casino resort without telling the usual story of hapless down-and-outs blowing their hopes by gambling. It does begin with a young married couple, Danny and Lisa, hoping to turn $157 into $1,000. Danny is boyish, in both appearance and “in that he always believed that the next time, unlike the last, he’d somehow get away with it.”
Danny has good luck – at first – playing the slot machines. Then he and Lisa have to decide whether to quit, making a choice that almost always leads characters into trouble. Ultimately this is a story about wisdom, not money. Its ending is not about whether Danny and Lisa will be able to afford to keep their truck. It’s about what kind of lives they’ve chosen to lead.
“A Sort of Miracle,” the other story from Ecotone, is even better. It tells the darkly funny tale of an accountant named Denton and his two no-good brothers-in-law, Marlboro and Baroque. The brothers come from Florida, but they have lately been parked on Denton’s sofa, watching TV shows about medical miracles and driving him crazy.
Thanks to them Denton has begun having sexual problems with his wife, Susie. He decides he can be cured with Chinese medicine requiring the paws and gall bladder of a bear. So he makes the brothers take him hunting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When disaster strikes, the brothers’ knowledge of so-called miracles suddenly matters. The upshot of this adventure is both horrific and hilarious, and it underscores Rash’s great gift for hard-hitting surprise endings.
“A Servant of History,” previously unpublished, is another gem. It sends James Wilson, a pompous British academic, to the same Appalachian town Lisa and Danny are from, in search of ballads with English roots. “He was no university don muttering Gradgrindian facts facts facts in a lecture hall’s chalky air, but a man venturing among the new world’s Calibans,” James thinks, in self-congratulatory fashion. He has no idea what kind of hillbilly Calibans he will be facing.
Rash thickens the Carolina accents to suit James’ foreign ears and gives him a rustic guide to the region. As the town’s well-maintained houses give way to unpainted mountain cabins, James’ heart leaps with joy. His guide takes him to meet a whole family, warning: “They can be a techy lot, if they taken a dislikin’ to you.”
Hearing that the family is named McSomething, James decides to stress the Scottish heritage that is not really his. “I too proudly claim the heritage of thistle and bagpipe,” he says. This leads Rash into a black comedy of errors involving tartans, a hot poker, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the price of underestimating humble-looking locals.
“The Trusty,” the first story in the book, is much less interesting. This tale of a chain-gang prisoner and a young married woman who are equally eager to escape captivity is reminiscent of Rash’s most recent novel, “The Cove” in the way it uses isolation and loneliness in his fiction. Then there’s his way with country dialogue: When the convict woos the wife with escaping by train, he says: “Stick with me and you’ll ride the cushions.”
Nothing Gold Can Stay contains more fine stories than can be done justice here. Look for the ghostliness of “Something Rich and Strange,” in which a girl on a picnic steps into a river and is swept away, after which the story follows her into the water.
Enjoy Rash’s take on hippie culture in “The Magic Bus,” featuring a landlocked farm girl. Finally, savour “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” in which two old men, a cow and a calf struggling to be born are overwhelmed by a sense of their good fortune.
It’s one of the stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay that finds subtle nuances in that unforgiving title.