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2018

NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE V I E W

WITH EYES TO SEE IT a review by Zackary Vernon Ron Rash. Above the Waterfall. New York: Ecco, 2015.

ZACKARY VERNON, originally from Pawleys Island, SC, earned a BA in English from Clemson University. From there, he moved to North Carolina to enter the master’s program at North Carolina State University, then completed his PhD in English at UNC Chapel Hill. Currently, he is a member of the faculty at Appalachian State University. In 2015, he received the premiere Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize for “Boone Summer: Adventures of a Bad Environmentalist,” which was published in NCLR 2016. RON RASH, who was raised in Boiling Springs, NC, earned a BA in English from Gardner-Webb University and an MA in creative writing from Clemson University. Currently, he is the John Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. He is the author of seven novels, six collections of short stories, and five collections of poetry. His numerous honors include the O. Henry Prize, the James Still Award, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. He has been regularly featured in NCLR.

For more than a decade Ron Rash has been hailed by critics for being one of the most significant contemporary Southern and Appalachian writers. With the publication of his 2015 novel Above the Waterfall, I believe Rash also deserves to be among the ranks of the nation’s most insightful environmental writers. The novel is told in first person, alternating between the two main characters, Becky and Les. Three weeks prior to his retirement as a sheriff, Les becomes embroiled in controversy when a stocked trout river on the grounds of an upscale resort in western North Carolina is poisoned, killing a high number of prized trout. The primary suspect for the crime is Gerald, an irascible but kindhearted old man who has become a friend and father figure to Becky. A superintendent at the Locust Creek Park, located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Becky is psychologically unstable, after living through a deadly shooting when she was in elementary school and subsequently enduring emotionally unavailable parents. So when Gerald, the closest thing to family that Becky has, is accused of poisoning the river and is facing serious jail time, she defends him with a fierce loyalty. Becky also enlists the help of Les, with whom she has a recurring romantic interest, to investigate and hopefully exonerate Gerald. Throughout the novel, Les’s narration is sparse and often feels like Southern noir, similar to a James Lee Burke novel. Becky’s lyrical ruminations are reminiscent of early Annie Dillard, and they are in turns haunted by her past and compelled by her appreciation of the natural world around her. Although a painter and connoisseur of the visual arts, especially the work of Edward Hopper, Les

is no wordsmith. Becky, however, creates passages so rich in detail that it is possible to visualize them as paintings. Rash makes this parallel between the visual and the literary arts particularly clear in a scene in which Becky equates the techniques of Vincent Van Gogh to that of Gerard Manly Hopkins: “I walk down the loop trail, pass foxglove past bloom. Midsummer their flowers dangled like soft yellow bells. I’d wished them a breeze so they might silently ring. The same yellow as Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Vincent’s thick paint, like Hopkins’ thick sounds” (26). As this passage demonstrates, the characters in Above the Waterfall are obsessed with landscape, and throughout the novel Rash chronicles the transition in western North Carolina from agriculture to tourism (and generally ecotourism). In an epigraph-like section that precedes the novel’s first chapter, Becky states, “I sit on ground cooling, soon dew-damp. Near me a moldboard plow long left. Honeysuckle vines twine green cords, white flowers attached like Christmas lights. I touch a handle slick from wrist shifts and sweaty grips . . . But this plow has wearied into sleep. How long lying here? Perhaps a decade” (3–4). The meadow in which Maggie sits, once part of a patchwork of Appalachian farms in the area, now belongs to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469–mile stretch of interconnected national parks designed to bolster tourism in the region. When Becky later observes the meadow from the vantage point of a peak above it, she imaginatively transforms the darkening space below into the Lascaux caves in southwestern France, where some of the most well preserved examples of Paleolithic cave paintings have been discovered. She says,

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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