"Don't trust people who make a spectacle out of what they believe."
Mar 13, 2009
A consummate writer, Rash's Appalachia assumes a reality few capture as brilliantly, whether in novels or short stories. Chemistry and Other Stories is a sampler of the characters who people Rash's novels, from the old and the new South, the intransigent past, the bloody fields of the Civil War never far from the intrusions of the present. As solid and unmoving as the landscape, those people possess a dignity and spirit unique to time and place, an unforgiving land where diligent souls coax forth meager crops, age sitting early on their faces. In the title story, "Chemistry", a boy learns that "sometimes you have to search for solutions in places where only the heart can go". Felled by a crushing depression, a man finds solace in a former hobby, scuba diving. And he returns to the Pentecostal religion of his youth. Watching his father cope with this unfamiliar burden, a son becomes intimate with understanding and compassion, then forgiveness as his father slips away in a watery grave.
Hard work defines each day for a young couple who have purchased their own home in "Blackberries in June". Toiling long hours to improve the place, project by project, Jaimie and Matt are sanguine about the many years of hard work ahead, a future they both believe in. A family tragedy requires an adjustment of those hopes- "You got to accept life is full of disappointments"- but this couple is forged from stronger stuff than those who seek to exploit their progress. Loss is as familiar as tragedy as memories of the dead haunt the protagonist in "Cold Harbor". Anna, a nurse, clings to the small comfort: The fate of a man who survives his near-fatal wounds in Korea, the possibilities of his future a balm to her recurring nightmares. Seeking the truth of this survivor's post-war existence, Anna learns that "some grief is like barbed wire that's wound around a tree". In fact, this exquisite tension of pain and relief is a hallmark of Rash's writing, an appreciation of the uneasy balance of life's weights and measures.
In "Dangerous Love", a young woman flirts with her attraction to a carnival knife thrower, the slippery fact of the couple's need to skirt the edge of danger defining the relationship. Escaping a predictable future, she leaves security behind, committed to a nightly testing of her lover's accuracy. Yet another kind of love is revealed in "Deep Gap". Uncomfortable in the drug-riddled world his son inhabits, Marshall Vaughn carries a gun when he confronts his boy and two others in a filthy apartment. After treatment, father and son hope for the best. But old habits eventually reassert themselves when there is little hope and scarce motivation. Unable to help his boy, Vaughn lays his own life on the line in a gesture of unconditional love. Whatever the time frame, scene or characters, Rash's Appalachia is a repository of wisdom, grace, stubbornness and survival, sometimes a bleak, unforgiving landscape, just as often the source of hope. This is no place for the faint of heart, the territory of saints and sinners, the grit of the American spirit writ large. Luan Gaines/ 2009.
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