Left: Cover art of “Above the Waterfall” by Ron Rash (Courtesy of Harper Collins)
By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
Author Ron Rash’s new novel “Above The Waterfall” takes place in a rural North Carolina town, where the rivers run freely with local fish, the forests are teeming with the beauty of nature, and the streets are filled with the hallmarks of poverty and drug abuse that have turned this bucolic landscape in the mountains a place to escape – for some, it is towards the drugs and death, while for others, it is from the trauma that has chased them their entire lives. But the people in Rash’s book are not the stereotypes of mountain-dwelling hillbillies from popular culture, but complex individuals caught up in an endless cycle of hurt and hurting.
The main plot of “Above The Waterfall” follows Sheriff Les, ready to retire in a town marked with memories of his own failures, and his complicated friendship with park ranger Becky, whose career choice is more therapeutic than anything else as she deals with her fractured childhood. Before Les can achieve his long deserved rest, he has to deal with the rising tensions between a resort owner who caters to tourists and a long time resident named Gerald, known for being combative and reclusive to all except for Becky.
The beauty of Ron Rash’s novel lies in who tells the stories, particularly through Les and Becky, reflected in the shift between points of view with every chapter. “Above The Waterfall” opens from the point of view of Becky and is a gorgeously written rumination on nature and history and the power of what has been left behind. This is very characteristic of Becky’s chapters: her point of view is detail heavy, taking in every aspect of the natural world that she spends most of her waking and sleeping life in, and includes excerpts from the character’s poems that are drawn from her personal observations.
By comparison, Les’ chapters are more straightforward, although when he does have a poetic turn of phrase, it is usually when he finds himself in deep contemplation of where he has been and what direction his life is going, and these surprising phrases burn across the page with characteristic directness, whereas Becky’s thoughts blossom from line to line like a naturalist Gothic fairy tale in which she is the narrator of someone else’s life.
“Above The Waterfall” is a Southern novel in the sense that it tackles many of the issues of Appalachian fiction–the crushing poverty, the physical isolation of towns from one another, the petty crime and drug abuse and overwhelming feeling of becoming trapped in the same town for a lifetime without relief. Above all, it is a study of the human condition and how complex life in a small town can be. It is almost cliché to describe a novel as “examining the human condition” since, at the root of fiction, the majority of stories do the same thing, but Rash takes this credo of writing to heart with his latest piece. The reader can see the width and breadth of what humans are capable of in various situations and how that transforms a person into a believable series of inner contradictions.
Les is introduced as the virtuous sheriff but is revealed to be a man who will bend the situation to fit his view, has dark thoughts and does dark things and is filled with regrets of the hurt he has brought people. Gerald, one of the more unpredictable forces in the novel, is older with a weak heart, a violent past, a volatile nature, and a vulnerable spirit. People lash out at the ones they love or love the ones that hurt them, and at the end of the day every character answers for what they have done, whether it is through reparations or revenge.
Enjoyment of “Above The Waterfall” by Ron Rash depends upon how much you enjoy reading a multi-faceted story about trauma and intracommunity histories with the occasional meth lab bust. Although the story reads on the surface as simplistic, the depth of its characters and intimate world-building will fill in the gaps like so many black-eyed Susans through the cracks of the earth.