Monday, January 18, 2010

Saints At The River by Ron Rash

Somebody mentioned Ron Rash in a comment on another post and he wasn’t an author I’d heard of, so I decided to give him a try. An award-winner in his native southern Appalachia and a professor at Western Carolina University, Rash is a poet, novelist and short story writer with, typically for writers of that area, an acute sense of place and facility for evoking landscape and environment. It is no surprise, then, that in Saints at the River, the South Carolina landscape is a vital character in its own right. The novel begins with the tragic death by drowing of a young girl in the Tamasee River. The Tamasee is designated as ‘wild and dangerous’ and it is therefore illegal to do anything to the river which would damage its natural state. However, the family of the dead child, Ruth Kowalsky, want to build a portable dam in it in order to retrieve her body; environmentalists are implacably opposed. The central dilemma of the novel is posed.

Thus, we have a novel with a strong environmentalist core, and it debates the issues fluently and, it must be said, seamlessly. It is woven into the narrative well and only occasionally comes across as slightly sanctimonious, such as when Luke, the humourless environmentalist says without any apparent sense of irony, ‘A human being’s puny compared to a river.’ The debate over whether or not to build the dam creates divisions within the small community, with the majority of the locals opposed, and the motives of those who are in favour being questioned: greed, big business, the construction of ghastly new commuter towns by the banks of the river, this ‘holy place,’ are seen to be the end goal of some of those who ally behind the grieving father, Herb Kowalsky. In the middle of all of this is a young photographer, Maggie Glenn, and it is Maggie who provides the emotional core of the novel.

Aside from the environmental theme, the novel explores issues of kinship and community, and of the implacable hold of the past. Maggie is sent to cover the drowning story alongside journalist Allen Hemphill because she was born and raised in Tamasee, but doing so forces her to confront issues she has repressed for many years. In particular, her relationship with her father, who is dying from cancer, broke down many years before and they spend much of the novel in an antagonistic impasse. A tragic accident in her childhood had led to her brother being badly burned and Maggie finds it impossible to forgive her father for the apparent coldness of his reaction. “He carries what he feels for people deep inside,” Maggie’s Aunt Margaret once told her but, for Maggie, ‘I had wondered then as I did now what good love was that couldn’t be expressed.’ Years of anger have ossified into bitterness and, even though she wants to reach out to him, she is unable to do so.

Meanwhile, Allen Hemphill has a tragic history too and, like Maggie, the drowning of Ruth forces him to confront it. His wife and young daughter were killed a couple of years before in a car accident and as he watches Herb Kowalsky’s ceaseless attempts to bring his daughter to rest, he empathises strongly. Against their respective struggles with the past, then, Maggie and Allen come together in the present and try to forge some form of relationship.

Saints at the River is a good novel but I feel sure Rash will write (indeed may already have written) a far better one. He is clearly a fine writer, and he has a beautiful, lyrical style. The opening sequence, in particular, in which he describes the death of Ruth Kowalsky, is impressive. (It can, incidentally, be read here.) But overall there is something artificial about the novel. It is too neat, the characterisations too pat. For example, Maggie just happens to find a memory of her father being kind and solicitous, one that she has repressed for years and that re-emerges just at the most convenient moment in the plot, in response to the increasing frailty of her father. It feels unconvincing, forced. It makes you think ‘writer’, not ‘story’. The character is being manipulated for the sake of the plot.

And there is, overall, a curious bloodlessness about the novel. Maggie, the narrator, is positioned in the middle of the opposing factions, sympathetic to the needs of the Kowalsky family but understanding the sensitivities of her community, and what we hear from her, then, is a balanced analysis of the debate. It’s almost like a public service broadcasting report, ensuring everyone’s point of view is given, and no-one is depicted too negatively. Moreover, everyone portrays their respective griefs in very decorous terms, grief by numbers, nothing too intrusive, no prospect of embarrassing scenes. It isn’t like that, though, is it? Rash makes reference to two southern greats - an explicit reference to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and an implicit nod to Faulkner in a piece of dialogue. Those are two authors unafraid to try something different. I think I would have preferred a bit more blood and thunder. The author should probably let go a bit.

Nonetheless, Ron Rash is someone I will look out for again and Saints at the River is a worthwhile read.


Reader2 said...

Thanks for the reveiw. Love the dust jacket... Would you describe the narrator as reliable? I have read One Foot in Eden and learned early on to never underestimate the strength of a southern writer. The narration has several perspectives which I found effective with this story. Although OFIE starts somewhat slow the language is lyrical and methodically provokes a spiritual awareness in the reader.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hmm, apart from clearly repressing her emotions with regard to her relationship with her father, I would say yes, she is a fairly reliable narrator. It may be that I'm missing something, though, so I'll have another think.

And I think you're right about the strength of southern writers. The more I read them, the more I appreciate them.

thanks for commenting.

foxofbama said...

Until I find out different, I'm gonna take credit for bringing Ron Rash to your attention.
Unless you want to take a virginal read, Joyce Compton Brown has done a phenomenal review of Rash's Pen/Faulkner nominee in Appalachian Heritage, easily googled up.
To put it mildly, he has taken care of your reservations about Saints at the River. Violence, blood, evil abound in Serena; enough even for the likes of Cormac McCarthy; for whom Rash with us holds in wonder for his gifts.
Thanks for the link to the UK story on Cormac McCarthy. I was wandering around Knoxville myself in the late 70's and had I little better compass at the time, coulda bumped into him on the street and had a chat I coulda relished for a lifetime.
The UK story skirts Cormac on God, or Cormac's God as most distant. Lot of McCarthy passages suggest that, but I am haunted by his priest and anchorite tale circa page 157 of The Crossing; a proclamation of God's Grace as I understand it; not too far from the Scripture's Hebrews 11:13, though I may be clouded a little by sentiment in my bone's from an evangelical upbringing.
Would be great to hear James Wood and Marilynne Robinson discuss McCarthy from that vantage point.

Hope to come back in ten days or so with another comment on Rash I think you'll enjoy.
In the meantime consider a read of Rash's One Foot in Eden before you jump into Serena.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, I think it was you who pointed me towards Ron Rash, and I'm very grateful too...

I'm on the look-out for a copy of Serena, because I'm definitely intrigued.

McCarthy in 70s Knoxville would have been an interesting (though possibly dangerous!) person to know. I guess there's quite a lot of autobiography in Suttree. Having some knowledge of the area as it was must add extra resonance to the book for you, I'd think.

I shall look up the anchorite passage in The Crossing, because I can't bring it to mind at present.

thanks again for some great comments

foxofbama said...


I think you'll be delighted to know Ron Rash will be doing a reading of his work in the Netherlands in early March, and in April will be in France.
His novel one Foot in Eden is something of a hit in France, in its 2nd of 3rd printing in French.
His Pen/Nominated Serena one of three finalists for Best Book of the year for 08; Screen rights have been picked up and Aronofsky who directed the Oscar Nominated The Wrestler, is attached to the project.
Do google up the Mary Compton review of Serena in Appalachian Heritage.

Stephen Fox said...

Corrected name

Reviewer in Appalachian Heritage is Joyce Compton Brown.

Just google up or url this link

And sometimes the trick works, if you click on my name with this post it may bring up the pdf review.

It's very good.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello again, and thanks for the info on Rash. With any luck he'll make it over to the UK, too.

I'll look out the Compton Brown reference. I did order a copy of Serena the other week but it got cancelled by the supplier and I haven't got round to re-ordering it yet. I can get it cheaper despatched from the States, including postage, than I can buying it in the UK...

Stephen Fox said...

If you click on my name should bring up feature story on Ron Rash's latest collection of short stories in NY Times yesterday; on the whole glowing.

Or hereis the link to cut and paste

Tom Conoboy said...

It certainly is a glowing review. As an afficionado of short stories, I'm definitely going to have to give this collection a go.

Thanks for the link