Dreams of elsewhere haunt a desolate landscape
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
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