Ron Rash’s ‘Waterfall’ searches for answers in ruined Appalachia


‘Above the Waterfall’

By Ron Rash

Ecco, $26.99, 272 pages

Reading a Ron Rash short story can feel like diving off a cliff into a deep, dark lake. The cold of the water is shocking, disorienting — yet exhilarating. Such sensations linger long after the story ends.

The author’s latest novel, “Above the Waterfall,” brings to mind a more gradual sort of immersion. Rash returns to the Appalachian territory of his short fiction, but the experience is less a leap and more like wading into a mountain river. While things appear calm on the surface, a brutal undercurrent threatens to sweep you away.

The book begins as a lyrical, far-reaching reflection on nature and modern-day loneliness and flirts with an mishmash of ideas before evolving into an atypical Southern Noir whodunit. Les, the sheriff of a North Carolina backwater, has three weeks left until retiring from a job that never suited his personality. His longtime friend C.J., now a big shot at the local resort, believes the 51-year-old introvert has settled for too little in his life. Les doesn’t necessarily disagree. Retirement holds the promise of time to paint and maybe a chance to rekindle his stalled relationship with Becky, a park ranger and fellow daydreamer.

The guilt that Les bears over a failed marriage is an afterthought next to Becky’s unprecedented emotional baggage. Watching her favorite teacher die in an elementary school shooting left her mute for months. Years later, other senses failed her when she missed clues that her boyfriend was a budding eco-terrorist. Les worries that Becky is having a fresh lapse in judgment as she grows protective of Gerald, an elderly curmudgeon and alleged poacher.

Rash, who grew up in North Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University, captures the gritty realities of modern Appalachia with mournful precision: families fractured by violence and addiction, petty small-town conflicts, the gap between the haves and have-nothings. His meticulous language and knack for well-placed idioms evokes Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories.

Recalling a childhood habit of sleepwalking, Les says, “I’d open my eyes and there’d be nothing but darkness, like the world had slipped its leash and run away. … Then I’d hear a whip-poor-will or jar fly, or feel the dew dampening my feet, or I’d look up and find the stars tacked to the sky where they always were, only the moon roaming.”

Though the names are different, several of “Waterfall’s” characters echo personalities from Rash’s stories. Lesser writers risk resorting to caricatures or public service announcements when describing rural communities wrecked by poverty and drugs. Rash sneaks in a couple of short sermons, but he doesn’t need to preach in this land where rattle snakes guard pawn shops, keeping out the meth-heads with “eyes the color of dirty motor oil” and teeth “like Indian corn.”

The book is divided into five acts, suggesting a Shakespearean tragedy, but Rash avoids any typical storytelling formula for at least a hundred pages. Chapters narrated by Les deliver most of the action. A raid on a filthy meth den injects the first half with a necessary shot of adrenaline, then escalates into what may be the most disturbing scene you’ll read all year.

Becky’s flashbacks offer other moments of acute anxiety, but her impressionistic, occasionally rambling chapters serve more as writerly experiments with sensual language. Her obsessions can be fascinating: poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the cave paintings at Lascaux, extinct Southern parakeets. The miscellanea opens the door to meditations on nature and spirituality. An account of sidestepping a copperhead hiding behind a log reads like a fan letter to Annie Dillard: “Part of me not sight knew [the snake] was there. The atavistic like flint rock sparked. Amazon tribes see Venus in daylight. My grandfather needed no watch to tell time. What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.”

The poetic interludes lose a little steam after a while, especially once “Waterfall” shifts into mystery mode. An act of sabotage wipes out a population of trout at C.J.’s resort. The obvious suspect is Gerald, who has a habit of trespassing on the property. The investigation puts Les at odds with almost everyone.

Rash strives to keep the police procedural matters engaging. It’s not exactly a difficult whodunit to solve. The business of poisoned fish lacks the life-and-death gravitas of the novel’s “meth plague” subplot. Late in the book, an aside from Les hints at a metaphorical correlation between the divergent storylines, but the comment leads to more questions than answers: “Nature brought out the best in humans, Becky said, but here, as deep into nature as you could get in this county, I saw just the opposite. … a green Bic lighter, a pill bottle cap, more empty foil packets, drink tabs and cigarette butts.”

“Under the Waterfall” flows slowly at first, even while touching many of contemporary society’s hot-button issues: school shootings, environmentalism, terrorism, addiction, economic injustice. Beneath the surface, the novel contemplates more timeless questions about human frailty, the divinity of nature and the legacies of our native landscapes. Readers itching for a gritty Country Noir thriller or Rash’s gifts with Southern Gothic may be surprised to find a hybrid of prose poetry, nature writing and literary mystery. This ambitious novel lacks some of the urgency and coherency that make the author’s other fiction sparkle, but it remains exhilarating — and beguiling. As Becky tells a group of kids visiting her park: “You don’t have to understand the words. Just let the sounds enter you.”