Ron Rash opens his haunting new novel with a near-mythic resurrection.
“She is waiting,” a voice tells us, “she is patient.”
Set free by decades of rain that wear away her grave on the banks of a creek in Sylva, N.C., what remains of a long-dead girl, wrapped in a tarp for 46 years “spills into the stream and is free.”
Her name is Ligeia Mosely, a Florida runaway sent to live with her uncle and aunt to protect her from “bad influences.” Seventeen years old with red hair, aqua eyes and a perfect complexion, she appears one day in 1969, a vision in a green bikini, at the favorite fishing spot of teenage brothers Eugene and Bill Matney.
The three share an idyllic summer of free love, beer and Boone’s Farm (and Quaaludes and Valiums for the winsome Ligeia), until the end of September, when Bill puts her on a bus to Asheville. Or so he tells Eugene. Ligeia is never seen again — until the day her 17-year-old face graces the front page of their local newspaper, her body identified from dental records in the original missing persons report.
Rash, known for his fine-tuned, lapidary short stories (“Burning Bright,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay”) and lyrical novels (“Serena,” “The Cove,” “Under the Waterfall”), has reined in his usual style for “The Risen,” a spare and sinuous murder mystery unveiled through a disquietingly elusive narrative and a fast-moving plot.
The setting is a sleepy hamlet outside of Asheville where Eugene and Bill, now in their 60s, have remained though their lives have wildly diverged. In chapters that alternate between the present investigation and vivid flashbacks, Eugene recalls early life with their widowed mother and grandfather, a tyrannical WWI veteran and country MD who runs their lives with an iron hand.
Light years away from the hippie movement and its music and drug culture, Sylva’s inhabitants glimpse the Vietnam War and civil rights protests from a distance, remembers Eugene, “as if we peered into a telescope at some alien world.” Bill, “the golden boy,” is groomed to be a surgeon, while Eugene, lacking his brother’s hand-eye coordination and his grandfather’s favor, tilts toward literature, where his true talent lies.
As Eugene reviews his memories of that long-ago summer, truth and fiction overlap from the start, when “Ligeia’s ability to appear or disappear seemed magical.” Bill disputes Eugene’s initial sighting of the skinny-dipping siren at the pond, joking that maybe Eugene as been “getting into Grandfather’s closet,” where the prescription drugs are stored, a cool foreshadowing of events to come.
Piecing together the often spooky elements of his grandfather’s powerful reign, Eugene reveals the old man’s menacing legacy in the smoke and mirrors surrounding Ligeia’s disappearance. From battlefield stories to deathbed confessions, a tangled family history of lies, secrets and blackmail attests to the cruelty he and his brother met at their grandfather’s hands, as well as what was meted out to others.
But the story emerges from unreliable sources. Eugene, once a promising writer and teacher, is now the town drunk, a man chiefly remembered for causing the near fatal car crash that left his young daughter scarred and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. The alcohol that once enabled him to feel “braver, stronger,” Eugene recalls, brought forth a darker side: “The suffusing glow freed something in me … though perhaps summoned is a more honest word.”
Bill, who at 18 had few qualms about lying or cheating on his girlfriend with Ligeia, is now a successful surgeon with a spotless reputation, “a good man, compassionate, generous,” beloved by all, including Eugene’s wife and daughter, whom he rescued from Eugene’s destructive cycle.
“Always the better brother and ever to be,” Eugene calls Bill, despite the fact that each time new evidence arises — courtesy of the sheriff who questions Eugene about his involvement in the murder — his brother offers a different version of Ligeia’s last day alive. Nor has Eugene ever told the truth about what happened one afternoon with Ligeia when Bill was nowhere around.
Not surprisingly, in this story studded with false memories, unreliable testimony and moral ambiguity, there are no innocent victims. As conniving as she is winsome, Ligeia plays Eugene like the Bugtussle hick he is, extracting drugs and favors while flattering him and schooling him on sex and the ’60s underground music he craves.
The era is lavishly cataloged, from Ligeia’s love beads to her Jefferson Airplane T-shirt (“That’s a music group?” Eugene asks her), from head shops to commune life, from Strawberry Hill wine to shotgunning a joint. As always, Rash has aced his period homework: Ligeia throws around more authentic drug and hippie slang than I’ve heard since my junior year in high school.
Some of the author’s most enduring themes are at play here, particularly the classism that divides his mountain communities, seen in the old doctor’s refusal to treat the local welfare recipients, and in his Mephistophelian control over the less fortunate: his daughter-in-law, grandsons, secretary, handyman and anyone else who comes within striking distance of this Appalachian Mr. Potter.
The prospect of murder haunts the book in many forms, both real and metaphorical: a willful drowning in the bottle, the aborting of potential, the denial of love and erasing of second chances. “The Risen” asks thorny questions about family and freedom of choice and whether some lives are worth more than others — and if so, does the end ever justify the means?
In one of Rash’s strongest, most evocative novels to date, life offers messy, complicated truths. They appear and disappear, forcing us to look more deeply beneath the surface, to places where “the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens, and more of the bank peels off … bringing to light another layer of dark earth.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.