Dreams of else­where haunt a des­o­late land­scape

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

IN the pro­logue to Ron Rash’s lat­est novel, The Cove, it is the 1950s and a North Carolina val­ley is about to be flooded for a hy­dro­elec­tric scheme. Un­usu­ally, there is lit­tle re­sent­ment. As one older man re­marks, ‘‘ you can’t bury that cove deep enough for me’’.

For it is a gloomy place, in a cliff’s over­hang. At its en­trance are ‘‘ shards of coloured glass and yel­low salt from a cow lick to keep evil from com­ing through’’. Crops — first chest­nuts, then to­bacco — are blighted. This is, by su­per­sti­tious rep­u­ta­tion, a ‘‘ shadow land there wasn’t a gloamier place in the whole Blue Ridge. A cursed place as well ... where ghosts and fetches [dou­bles] wan­dered’’.

It is a place to which Rash has taken us be­fore, in Hard Times, the des­o­lat­ing first story in his re­cent col­lec­tion Burn­ing Bright (2010). Now he re­turns to the cove in the last months of the Great War. Sib­lings Hank and Lau­rel Shel­ton are try­ing to make the best of their lives in these un­pro­pi­tious sur­round­ings. He lost a hand while bear­ing water to a wounded sol­dier and has joined the ranks of the maimed and the gassed who have come back to the dis­trict. She has a prom­i­nent birth­mark, which leads the venge­fully ig­nor- ant of Madi­son County to think her a witch.

But brother and sis­ter are res­o­lute, against des­per­ate odds, in their de­sire for a bet­ter fu­ture. For Hank this is in mar­riage to a lo­cal girl, once he has proved to her fa­ther that a one-armed man can still pro­vide. For Lau­rel it is in dreams of else­where, per­haps even of a hap­pi­ness for which she yearns, but whose na­ture she can­not imag­ine.

Then one day she hears mu­sic. Not of a war­bler or a thrush, but from a man play­ing a flute. It seems to Lau­rel that ‘‘ the mu­sic was about ev­ery loss that had ever been’’. A note in his pocket in­tro­duces him as Wal­ter Smith, mute since birth, and seek­ing help to travel to New York. The world be­yond the Ap­palachi­ans has only oc­ca­sion­ally en­tered Rash’s fic­tion, notably in his en­gross­ing and ex­trav­a­gant melo­drama, Ser­ena (2008: the past few years have been far the most pro­lific of Rash’s ca­reer).

Here that world makes it­self felt through the story re­vealed to us of the Ger­man ocean liner, Vater­land, that has been stuck in New York since the out­break of the war. When the US even­tu­ally takes its part in that Euro­pean con­flict, the crew of the ship are in­terned in a camp at Hot Springs, not so far from the cove.

Wal­ter, who is in fact a Ger­man mu­si­cian from the ship, is taken in by the Shel­tons. He is seen only by a few in the dis­trict: the el­derly good neigh­bour, Slidell Hamp­ton, whose grimmest mem­ory is of how his ‘‘ fa­ther and brother had been killed by out­liers dur­ing the Con­fed­er­ate War’’, and the broth­ers Ansel and dis­tillers of moon­shine.

While Wal­ter finds refuge and the war nears its end, Sergeant Chauncey Feith re­dou­bles his ef­forts of re­cruit­ment and search for treach­ery within. Scorned by the vet­er­ans of a war he has avoided, Feith pos­tures on his horse Trav­eller (name of the favourite mount of Robert E. Lee), per­se­cutes the Ger­man-born Pro­fes­sor Mayer and rails that ‘‘ we of late have all but been over­run with likely im­pe­rial agents’’. While Lau­rel now thinks ‘‘ this was some­thing rarer ... Hap­pi­ness that must be what this is’’, her life

Boyce

Clay­ton, — and her brother’s — will soon enough be trag­i­cally en­twined with Feith’s.

In The Cove, Rash’s style is plainer and more sub­dued than usual. When there are flour­ishes it is be­cause of ex­cep­tional events that have en­tered the folk mem­ory of the re­gion, as when once in win­ter Slidell came upon ‘‘ a good half hun­dred rat­tlers and cop­per­heads knot­ted in a big ball’’. As they pull apart and crawl across the snow, ‘‘ it looked like he’d opened a crack in hell it­self’’. The char­ac­ters’ speech is in­fused with di­alect, vivid ver­bal rem­nants of an ear­lier time: ‘‘ gloamier’’, ‘‘ fetches’’, ‘‘ gaumy’’, ‘‘ skiffed’’, ‘‘ fyce’’ (the lat­ter a small dog, skilled in mis­lead­ing the high sher­iff in his pur­suit of boot­leg­gers).

Such his­tor­i­cal lay­er­ing is con­so­nant with the per­sis­tence of the mem­ory of old griev­ances and su­per­sti­tions, with an en­closed men­tal world that few wish to es­cape even if they could. The Cove is one of Rash’s bleak­est nov­els. Among its last words are Slidell’s ‘‘ I’ve al­ready lived four days longer than I wish I had’’, yet there is a core of re­silience and de­cency to be found in some of its peo­ple, be­lea­guered as they are. This novel con­firms Rash’s sta­tus as a mas­ter of that dark re­gional tra­di­tion that has dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can fic­tion since Mark Twain. Peter Pierce edited the Cam­bridge His­tory of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture. Ron Rash will be a guest of Ade­laide Writ­ers Week, March 3-8.

In Mark Twain’s foot­steps . . . Ron Rash

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