by Ron Rash; Ecco, 2013; 239 pages; $24.99.
There’s a spare tree on the book jacket of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” — a tree leafless, adrift and alone. It seems to have faced the accidents of living, as Ron Rash says we all must in this haunting, heartbreaking collection of stories from the established Southern master.
A young couple decides to test their fortunes at the Cherokee Indian Reservation casino. In the 1970s an adolescent girl, deciding to leave her stultifying farm life, realizes that becoming a “flower child” isn’t as exotic as it sounds. Three ne’er-do-wells hunt bear with only one pistol and a trap.
An ingenuous musicologist, gathering ballads in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the1920s, experiences the vengeance of his Scottish ancestry. Just after the Civil War, a local pastor gives part of himself to settle another kind of war, a war between a suitor and the intended’s father. During the same war, two runaway slaves rest for the night on the farm of a man whose only son lost his life fighting “for Mr. Lincoln.”
The collection begins with three strikingly stark stories. “The Trusty” is first cousin to Flannery O’Connor’s classic “Good Country People” as a trusty from a chain gang underestimates a young wife he thinks he has convinced to leave her farmer husband. In “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” an ironic play on the Robert Frost poem, two drug-addled thieves reminisce about the start of their unsuccessful “careers.” And “Something Rich and Strange” tells the haunting story of the search for the body of a drowned woman that a river refuses to release.
The collection concludes with two exquisitely moving contemplations on solitude. “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out” follows a retired, widowed veterinarian and Korean War veteran as he oversees a calf’s breach birth and looks at his now-solitary life. In “Night Hawks,” a young teacher is wounded both physically and spiritually by an unexpected storm outside her elementary school classroom. Acknowledging solitude as her only defense, she begins again as a late-night disc jockey, embracing her new mission while “the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark, adrift and alone.”
The serene brutality of his novel “Serena” and his last story collection “Burning Bright” haunts Rash’s characters in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” mostly set in his beloved Appalachia. They are characters who feel they are “owed a bit of good luck.” As they go through their days, escape is called leave-taking and disappointment turns into death. Storms, broken windows, barn fires, self-mutilation — both deliberate and by chance — become the accidents of living.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.