Author: Ron Rash
Publisher: ECCO (HarperCollins)
Price: $25.99 (Hardcover)
When Ron Rash's first novel, “One Foot in Eden,” won the Novello Literary Award in 2002, he already had in print two volumes of stories, three of poetry and a children’s book. Since that time there have been other volumes of poetry and stories and six more novels, including “Serena,” a best-seller and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Rash has moved onto the top shelf of Appalachian writers, a genre that was dominated in the past by authors such as James Still, Fred Chappell and Jesse Stuart and now by Lee Smith, Silas House, and Wendell Berry.
Life in those mountains can be humorous, as it sometimes is in Lee Smith’s work, but mainly it is rough.
“The Risen” begins with a lyric description of a long-buried corpse slowly being unearthed by nature: “She is waiting. Each spring the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens, and more of the bank peels off, …bringing to light another layer of dark earth…. She spills into the stream and is free. Bits of bone gather in an eddy, form a brief necklace. The current moves on to the sea.”
Forty-six summers earlier, in 1969, 16-year-old Eugene and his big brother Bill, 21, would spend their Sunday afternoons at secluded Panther Creek, outside of fictional Sylva, N.C., swimming and fishing. One Sunday there appeared, like a vision, a stranger, a girl alone. The book’s narrator, Eugene, gives her the name Ligeia, out of a Poe story. Her real name was, she used to say, too ordinary. Ligeia was not ordinary. She was a wild child.
She had gotten into trouble selling drugs in Daytona, Florida, and to keep her from temptation, was exiled to live with cousins in the mountains.
But she IS the temptress. A kind of hippie mermaid, Ligeia seduces both the brothers, has sex with them both every Sunday, convinces Bill to bring beer and wine to the creek, and persuades Eugene to steal Valium and Quaalude samples from their grandfather’s medical office.
Then one day she disappears, presumably a runaway.
Now the remains have been found, and forensics reveal she was murdered, but by whom?
Eugene, our narrator, fears that Bill was the murderer. Bill had told Eugene he put Ligeia on the bus to Charlotte. This was a lie.
Now Bill is a surgeon, and Eugene has read that “only those with an inherent degree of cruelty chose his profession.”
Eugene remembers how Bill could lose his temper. As a high school pitcher, he threw right at a batter’s head, “forcing him to dive to the dirt.”
Their grandfather, a GP, was not the kindly local Doc. A bigot and snob, “On some days, he refused to see welfare patients at all.” He was feared, not loved, in Sylva, a rigid autocrat who abused his wife and bullied the brothers and their widowed mother.
To add complication, Eugene, once an aspiring writer, named in fact after Eugene Gantt of Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” has become the town drunk. He has lost his teaching job and his family, and has been unable to write. Eugene has blackouts. Did he commit murder and then forget?
Robbie Loudermilk, the local sheriff, certainly thinks Eugene is the killer.
It might seem, perhaps, this novel is too typically Appalachian: alcohol, sex, drugs, murder and a small-town sheriff, but Rash is a fine storyteller and “The Risen” ends with some nice twists and is a fast read from start to finish.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.