Since the success of his best-selling novel Serena, Ron Rash has been riding a wave of notoriety resulting in two movie adaptations—of vastly differing execution—a selected volume of short stories, and a selected poems released this spring. Among these projects, Rash also published another novel last year. I first heard about his Above the Waterfall in an interview I conducted with Rash in 2013 when working on a project related to his poetry, and at the time I could manage nothing but excitement. His novels, short story collections, and books of poetry set in Southern Appalachia have always struck a delicate balance between lyric and narrative that captivated me. He rarely escapes comparison to his illustrious Southern forerunners Faulkner and O’Connor whose Biblical tone, gothic themes, and attention to language Rash makes his own. So when this newest attempt failed to measure up to his previous successes, I had to piece together for myself why.
Above the Waterfall sits at the genre-juncture of western and mystery and follows the story of Becky, a park ranger, and Les, a retiring county sheriff, as they try to discover who poisoned the local river. Their already unsteady relationship is tested when Becky’s love for Gerald, the elderly man accused of poisoning the river, clashes with Les’s duty to uphold the law. As the two struggle with the mystery surrounding the river, each battles their own secret traumas: Becky, a school shooting from her past, and Les, his memories of his ex-wife’s battle with depression. Les’s other duties as sheriff do not allow him to sort out his troubles quickly, as it becomes apparent that the river’s poisoning is not unconnected to Les’s own complicated relationship with the Appalachian drug trade.
Becky and Les narrate the novel alternately, each with radically different voices. Becky’s chapters distinguish themselves with their Hopkins-inspired language pervaded with consonance and assonance that slow her narration to a crawl. I found myself reading many of these tiny chapters aloud two or three times, sifting through their melodies: “I sit on ground cooling, soon dew-damp. Near me a moldboard plow long left.” Her chapters affect additional stylistic elements, incorporating Becky’s journal entries and dwelling in the present tense. While Becky’s voice stands out confidently, she and her observations rarely propel or inform the plot at all, making her chapters at best a momentary reprieve from a tense chapter and at worst frustratingly obfuscatory.
Les’s chapters have quite a bit more in them and could easily come from any of Rash’s previous male narrators, sheriffs or otherwise. He speaks always in the past tense with simple language while often indulging in irrelevant digressions. For instance, Rash allows Les to ponder whether or not the prayers of his secretary are Catholic or Baptist without ever making that detail relevant to the plot or her character. If such an observation is meant to indicate a picky religious disposition that would paint Les as a legalistic Baptist, such a disposition seems at odds with his tacit agreement with the near pantheism of Becky and Preacher Waldrop, but this draws attention to another problem in the novel. While Rash’s other works grapple with theology at a structural level, this novel seems only to incorporate Christian elements out of habit or obligation. He doesn’t use religious motifs, as he has before, to explore vengeance, grace, and mystery, but as a sort of local color that diminishes them to the status of country music on the radio or a clipped syllable in a speaker’s voice.
As the book’s conclusion approaches and Les attempts to enforce the law, Rash stumbles a bit on legal procedure. Les makes the decision, apart from a judge or any official criminal charges, to put an ankle bracelet on Gerald rather than put him in jail. Then, at the novel’s conclusion, we hear in a hasty two pages that Les has contacted the district attorney and bargained a plea deal, without any formal charges having been filed, or any suspect officially having been taken into custody. We are supposed to believe that these seemingly quick-witted legal shenanigans are orchestrated in an hour by a sheriff who is about thirty pages behind the reader in discovering the real culprit. While these fast and loose legal dealings eliminate the need for a possibly boring court scene and trim the number of characters in this already full-cast drama, they come across as bumbling rather than calculated decisions. While it may sound pedantic to ask a novelist for proper legal procedure, the novel might have benefitted from a few scenes of Les talking with the DA or judge, because those might have filled the book with things that pushed the action forward.
While the book’s scant plot stretches to 250 pages, it feels like a stretch, as though elongated by unnecessary digressions and Becky’s lyrical chapters. The central crime of the novel doesn’t even occur until nearly half way through the book. Rash goes to some trouble to tell the backstory of both Becky and Les, riddled as they both are with past traumas, and while these details definitely add to the texture of the characters’s voices, they raise more questions than the story is able to address. Depression, PTSD, guilt, environmentalism, and extremism haunt these characters without significant resolution or attention. I’d welcome full treatments of these issues in a novel, but their glancing treatment makes them feel picked at random, drawing attention to rather than concealing the plot’s emptiness.
The book does have moments that shine. Early on, Les and his two deputies, Jarvis and Barry, conduct a drug raid in Mist Creek Valley where the law men suspect a local couple has been cooking meth. The chapter does a fantastic job at maintaining tension while avoiding both aestheticizing or moralizing the condition of meth addicts. However, Rash seems incapable of pulling the trigger, of concluding the scene where by all rights it should have ended. The novel’s insistence on the hardship of “real life” strikes a hard contrast with the scene’s disappointing, albeit happy, ending. The novel’s conclusion likewise fails to satisfy, allowing all the guilty parties off with a slap on the wrist, including the crooked sheriff whose ad hoc drug kickbacks actually serve to diffuse the conflict. The ends of Rash’s other novels are characterized by dramatic and occasionally grotesque scenes of consequence: a witch’s body descending to the bottom of an artificial lake, a midnight stabbing, or a bloody car wreck. In contrast, Above the Waterfall concludes with a later-than-expected retirement and an unconvincing romance, muting the tension and perpetuating addiction and corruption, with no hint at either grace or hope.
Joshua Jones has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. His poems have appeared in the McNeese Review, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and The Mayo Review among others.