Lady Mac­beth in Ap­palachia, other tales by Amer­i­can master

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Books - By Janet Maslin

Nearly half of Ron Rash’s mes­mer­iz­ing new story col­lec­tion is de­voted to its ti­tle piece, “In the Val­ley,” a se­quel to his 2008 novel “Serena.” If you’ve read that book, you surely re­main haunted by its mythic pow­ers. Nom­i­nally the De­pres­sion-era story of a North Carolina log­ging heir who re­turns home from Bos­ton with a daunt­ing new bride, it in­vested the power-mad Serena Pem­ber­ton with oth­er­worldly ma­lign qual­i­ties and gave her a big swath of North Carolina’s Ap­palachian log­ging coun­try to de­spoil.

Serena her­self, rul­ing the re­gion on her white Ara­bian stallion with a trained ea­gle and lasso for em­pha­sis, cut a blood­cur­dling fig­ure. A tall, blond god­dess with the heart of Lady Mac­beth, she seemed to ter­ror­ize ev­ery liv­ing thing in her path. She hoped to rav­age the land­scape both eco­nom­i­cally and phys­i­cally, with a few hu­man grudge matches for good mea­sure. Her am­bi­tion was tamped down in “Serena” only by the fact that through most of the book she wasn’t tech­ni­cally the boss but his wife, no mat­ter how in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Serena steps off a sea­plane into “In the Val­ley,” re­turn­ing to her North Carolina log­ging tract fol­lowed by a press con­tin­gent. The year is 1931. Any an­swers about her hus­band’s death or that of the lo­cal ad­vo­cate for a na­tional park? Does she plan to pay fair wages? The only ques­tion she deigns to an­swer is from a young woman: When will she ever be sat­is­fied? “When the world and my will are one,” Serena an­swers.

“In the Val­ley” is a fullthroat­ed cry for help against her brand of ruth­less­ness. As the lo­cals watch Serena’s ea­gle kill rat­tlesnakes for threat and sport, they get an inkling of what she has in mind for ev­ery­thing in sight. All the snakes go wild. The in­creas­ing num­ber of tree stumps make “the land look poxed, as if in­fected by some dread dis­ease.” Rash in­cludes pas­sages solely de­voted to re­lated species of wildlife flee­ing this doomed place. They are among the least eerie parts of the novella, since the nat­u­ral world’s sur­vival skills are rel­a­tively drama-free. Hu­mans fare worse.

“In the Val­ley” takes Serena to such a fever pitch of de­struc­tion that in a lesser writer’s hands it might seem over­heated. But Rash main­tains the deep keel that has al­ways dis­tin­guished him and has per­haps led to him be­ing char­ac­ter­ized as “South­ern,” a des­ig­na­tion he ap­par­ently finds dis­mis­sive. He shouldn’t; he’s one of the best liv­ing Amer­i­can writ­ers, and his la­conic un­der­state­ment is much more pow­er­ful than ex­cess. The way that in­fluenza deaths fig­ure in “In the Val­ley” is as ter­ri­fy­ing as any­thing you may find on the sub­ject, even if its crescendo is: “By the time he got the doc­tor, it was too late. His fam­ily was noth­ing more than three filled coffins.”

The novella’s mi­nor char­ac­ters, hu­man and oth­er­wise, are all drawn with ex­cep­tional care. That’s also true in the nine other sto­ries in this slim vol­ume, though some are very short.

“Ran­som” amounts to an ex­tended vi­gnette, but it cap­tures the chem­istry be­tween a well-off col­lege stu­dent and the man who abducts her, hop­ing to make only one kind of killing. The un­ex­pected hap­pens, as it al­ways does with this au­thor. And these two turn out to be just sim­patico enough to leave the cap­tive with a mem­ory guar­an­teed to en­dure.

“Ran­som” is a new story. Oth­ers in the col­lec­tion have ap­peared in places as var­ied as “Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2018” and the lit­er­ary re­view Bit­ter South­erner (which is iron­i­cally named and well worth look­ing into). The open­ing piece, a beauty, even found its way into “Best Amer­i­can Mystery Sto­ries 2019” for its way of pit­ting ex­hausted Civil War troops against a woman de­fend­ing her home­stead. It ’s called “Neigh­bors.” And it re­volves, as so much of Rash’s work does, around se­crets held deep within South­ern hearts.

The most haunt­ing and darkly funny of these is “The Bap­tism,” a story that be­gins and ends with shot­guns. The rea­son for the fire­power: Ja­son Gunter, well-known ne’er-do-well and ter­ri­ble hus­band, who is work­ing up to his sec­ond mar­riage. His first wife ei­ther hanged her­self or dis­ap­peared, de­pend­ing on whom you ask in the ru­ral spot where the story un­folds. One per­son who wouldn’t like to be asked: Rev. Yates, who knows that Ja­son in­tends his next wife to be a very young girl.

What ’s more, Ja­son wants a bap­tism for this fresh start. In the dead of win­ter. Given Ja­son’s track record for mar­riage, there are no en­thu­si­asts for this, but Ja­son will not be de­nied. Let’s just say that he gets the ex­act bap­tism he de­serves and that Yates’ se­cret is one he can hap­pily live with for­ever.

“IN THE VAL­LEY: Sto­ries and a Novella Based on ‘Serena’ ” Ron Rash Dou­ble­day. 220 pp. $26.95.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.