If a place can have a flavor, then the Appalachian hill country of Ron Rash’s short story collection Burning Bright has notes of hope and persistence underlying the bitter bite of despair. These are not happy stories; these are stories of people so lost that they will return to the bed of a husband suspected of arson, as with Margaret, the protagonist of the title story “Burning Bright,” or curl up with corpses in the frozen husk of an airplane because an imaginary dead family is preferable to the reality, as determined by the boy in “The Ascent.”
Though seemingly linked only by geography, the stories of Burning Bright twist inextricably into a cohesive unit, bound by the undefinable, yet undeniable, spirit of that landscape. If a common thread runs through each story, it is that of a threat. Poverty, the sort where the bank taking “the truck and most of the livestock” makes a couple better off than the neighbors, infests the Depression-era Appalachia which houses the first story, aptly named “Hard Times.” Several of the stories reveal the corrosive modern threat of methamphetamine addiction. A Civil War wife faces threat from a former neighbor turned Confederate soldier in “Lincolnites.” Many characters confront more nebulous dangers. The protagonist of “The Corpse Bird” is caught by the collision of the naturalistic world of his youth and the materialistic, scientific world of his education and neighbors.
In the hands of a lesser writer, these tales would be melodramatic or overwhelming to the point of becoming unreadable. However, Rash delicately balances and layers the nuances of madness and hope to craft, instead, stories that grab the reader and drag him into a deep, rich, painful and oddly redemptive world.
In my favorite story, “The Corpse Bird,” Rash removes the protagonist from the rural hill culture of his youth, and places him in an urban setting with a college education. The dichotomy between the atavistic impulses that lay at the heart of the human experience and the rational, systematic approach that overlays modern life explodes in this story.
Boyd Candler had grown up among people who believed the world could reveal all manner of things if you paid attention…
At Asheville High Boyd mastered a new kind of knowledge, one of theorems and formulas, a knowledge where everything could be explained down to the last decimal point. His teachers told him he should be an engineer and helped Boyd get loans and scholarships so he could be the first in his family to attend college. His teachers urged him into a world where the sky did not matter, where land did not blacken your nails, cling to your boots, or callous your hands but was seen, if at all, through the glass windows of buildings and cars and planes. The world irrelevant and mute.
For sentences like that last alone, I would be tempted to read Rash’s writing. Fragmentary, yes, but it is that perfect fragment that encapsulates an entire culture of loss. Burning Bright is replete with these sorts of sentences – the moments which hold huge ideas in very small, specific vessels.