The title of Ron Rash’s fifth short story collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, comes from the chestnut poem, with the same title, by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay
It is one of only
two three poems I have memorized in my life (the others being Sandberg’s Fog and a classic limerick having to do with Nantucket, thanks for the reminder, Steve), and one that has certainly informed my world view. (cheery sort that I am) That notion may or may not have had merit personally, but for most of the characters who inhabit the fourteen tales in Rash’s Appalachian landscape, that glow of youthful vivacity will soon tarnish.
Characters here cover a wide age range, from middle-teens rattling their social cages to old friends in their sunset years, appreciating what they have had and cherishing what remains, from late teens struggling to find their way to a better life to others descending into criminality. They tend toward the edges, young or old with only a smattering in between, and those in the middle do not fare any better than those at the perimeter. Rash’s time line is likewise broad, with a couple of stories set circa Civil War, one in the 1960s, and most being reasonably contemporary.
Overall, these stories are about the coexistence of dark and light. In the title piece, two wastrel boys stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll. Or maybe it is only a dream of light, as hopes are raised several times in these stories, only to be melted down. People here feel trapped, by their past, their circumstances, their weakness. But there are also elements here of incredible love and self-sacrifice, enough to move one (ok, mushy old me) to tears. Life is not wonderful in Rash’s world. Kids want to escape, move on, find something better. But the existence into which they were born drags them under like the rough river in Something Rich and Strange. How much of who we are is accounted for by the circumstances in which we were born, the prison of class? Quite a bit.
Jody had watched other classmates, including many in college prep, enter such a life with an impatient fatalism. They got pregnant or arrested or simply dropped out. Some boys, more defiant, filled the junkyards with crushed metal. Crosses garlanded with flowers and keepsakes marked roadsides where they’d died. You could see it coming in the smirking yearbook photos they left behind.
Some seek to leave the imprisonment of literal slavery and one the manacles of actual prison.
So, life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day. But wait, there’s more. Sometimes, there are pieces of life that hang on to their gloss. Two concerned parents live for a video call from their daughter in the service, every 26 days, a shining moment. Two old friends relish their lifelong friendship and enjoy the soft joys of the now. A young girl finds peace and beauty in a very unlikely place. And there is beauty in Rash’s world, even when its vibrant presence is used as a contrast to the living death of what may be a pointless existence.
The OC’s coating starts to dissolve. Its bitterness fills my mouth but I want the taste to linger a few more moments. As we cross back over the river, a small light glows on the far bank, a lantern or a campfire. Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world.
Sometimes there is even beauty in death.
Days passed. Rain came often, long rains that made every fold of ridge land a tributary and merged earth and water into a deep orange-yellow rush. Banks disappeared as the river reached out and dragged them under. But that was only surface. In the undercut all remained quiet and still, the girl’s transformation unrushed, gentle. Crayfish and minnows unknitted flesh from bone, attentive to loose threads.
The greatest, for me, was the beauty of a lifetime friendship told in hushed tones as an old veterinarian nestles in the warmth of a moment of serenity.
Carson was always comfortable with solitude. As a boy, he’d loved to roam the woods, loved how quiet the woods could be. If deep enough in them he wouldn’t even hear the wind. But the best was in the barn. He’d climb up in the loft and lean back against a hay bale, then watch the sunlight begin to lean through the loft window, brightening the spilled straw. When the light was at its apex, the loft shimmered as though coated with golden foil. Dust motes speckled the air like midges. The only sound would be underneath, a calf restless in a stall, a horse eating from a feed bag. Carson had always felt an aloneness in those moments, but never in a sad way.
These being short stories, there must be an O Henry ghost wandering around somewhere, and if you anticipate this you will not be disappointed. There are a number of ironic, even darkly comic endings, and certainly some surprising ones.
Gold, as a thematic seam, runs throughout, with actual gold in the title piece, a supposed heart of gold in another, golden hair in a third, pursuit of riches in a fourth, a gold coin in a fifth and so on. I don’t want to lay claim to all the nuggets, so will leave the rest of the lode for those with a miner’s inclination, or if you don’t care for it, a panner’s.
My personal favorite was Night Hawks, clearly inspired by the painting, in which a woman, affected by the social impact of her appearance as a kid, struggles to find her place in the world. Must she be limited by an externality that is no longer there?
Rash inlays a few literary references in most of the stories, ways maybe to mark a trail in his woods. From A Catcher in the Rye to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, from Chekov to Darwin and plenty more. But we know whose woods these are and the paths are clear enough.
It may be that nothing gold can stay, but whatever Ron Rash writes is 24 karat and will shine for a very long time, further burnishing his sterling reputation. He seems to breathe in life, landscape and atmosphere and exhale literature. No silver medals for this collection. Only the top prize will do.
In The Trusty, a grifter in a chain gang plans an escape with a newly met, unhappy Mrs.
In Nothing Gold Can Stay, two wastrel boys, stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll.
Rash introduces a bit of magic in Something Rich and Strange, in which a diver, sent to retrieve the body of a drowned girl, has a vision.
Where the Map Ends pays a visit to the Civil War era, offering a bit of good news, followed by bad.
A Servant of History is a darkly comedic look at how a knowledge of one’s history might come in handy when far from home
Twenty Six Days is the time two working class parents have to wait between skype video calls from their daughter in a war zone. They must endure the insensitivity of some professorial sorts as they constantly fear for her life.
A Sort of Miracle contrasts two types of foolishness as a condescending accountant takes his layabout brothers in law into a national park to try to kill a bear.
Those Who are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven tells of how fragile is the path out of hopelessness, even when confronted with love. A smart, ambitious young man tries to bring his meth-addicted girlfriend out of her low state.
The Magic Bus contrasts extremes, a 60s era carefree sort of freedom on the one hand and a controlling, narrow farm life on the other as a teenage girl is tempted by the promise of escape.
The Dowry tells of a post Civil War town in which there is nothing a young Union vet can do to satisfy the Confederate father of his beloved that he is worthy of his daughter’s hand, the father holding a grudge from his having lost an arm in the war. A town cleric finds a surprising solution, in an act of great love.
The Woman at the Pond paints a picture of despair touching the life of a high school senior, without quite penetrating
Night Hawks was one of my favorites, hitting a bit close to home as it does. A young woman considers decisions in her life, informed by elements of her past that were beyond her control. There is a discussion here of the famous Hopper painting. In case you are interested, here is a site with the image and a look at where the actual location may have been.
Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out is a story of long-friendship, loss, rebirth and the value of what remains. Very moving
February 16 , 2013 – NPRs Scott Simon’s lovely interview with Ron Rash
February 22, 2013 – Boston Globe review
February 27, 2013 – Janet Maslin’s review in the NY Times
March 1, 2013 – I found this review, complete with some fun turns of phrase, in The Charlotte Observer.