This week I read my second Ron Rash novel of the year, Above the Waterfall. I got through it in two days—it's excellent.
Like most of Rash's fiction, Above the Waterfall takes place in the western North Carolina mountains, but unlike his historical novels Serena, One Foot in Eden, and The Cove, this story takes place in the present: a horribly real, recognizable present. This is the Appalachia of dependence—on distant relations to care for the children of failing families, on big-city resort developers and tourist dollars, on chemicals like painkillers, pot, and meth.
Les, a 51-year old Sheriff on the verge of retirement, and Becky, a middle-aged park ranger and Les's sometime romantic attachment, narrate the story in alternating chapters of present and past tense. Becky survived a school shooting as a girl and is still haunted by it in her mid-forties. She tries to dull the memories of the tragedy, her permanently disrupted family life, and her difficulty forming relationships by retreat into the wilderness and meditation on the beauty of the world. A devotee of Gerard Manley Hopkins, her chapters brim with his kind of allusive, fragmentary poetry as she pieces together her memories with her present struggles, particularly her difficult feelings for Les and the pain of a recently failed relationship with another nature lover, a man who turned out to be an eco-terrorist.
While Les is an artist too—a painter of watercolors—his career in law enforcement has imparted to his narration a directness that sits uneasily with his artistic inclinations. After decades arresting drug addicts and wife beaters, identifying corpses, and bearing bad news to the parents of meth-addicted children, his matter-of-factness even seems like a coping mechanism, as if he can only deal with the horrors he sees by describing them without polish.
What unites Les and Becky, other than a brief fling, an interrupted love affair, is an elderly man named Gerald. Becky has struck up a friendship with Gerald who, bereft of his wife and only son, lives alone on ancestral land abutting a new but struggling mountain resort. Gerald's meth-addicted nephew takes advantage of his generosity every chance he gets. While Becky tries to help Gerald however she can, Les, pestered by the resort's owner, has to try to persuade Gerald not to poach the trout living in the resort's stretch of the creek that flows through both properties.
The morning after an altercation in the resort parking lot that almost sends Gerald to the morgue, scores of fish wash up on the banks of the creek—poisoned with kerosene dumped into the stream above a waterfall where, according to Gerald, now rare speckled trout have returned. Gerald insists he's innocent, and Becky takes his side. Les, juggling the resort's problems and a harrowing series of meth busts, is just trying to keep the peace during his last days on the job. It's not enough.
This is my new favorite from Rash. What gripped me in my old favorite, One Foot in Eden, were the strongly drawn relationships—between the young couple at the beginning of the book, between the couple and a roguish neighbor, between the couple and their son many years later—and the threats that tested them—betrayal, adultery, lies, murder. Above the Waterfall shares these strengths but outdoes One Foot in Eden. With its cast of middle-aged characters, each of whom harbors hurts and secrets, each of whom struggle to overcome past sins and earn forgiveness, and with its setting in a dying world, this novel adds a thick layer of poignancy and theologically inflected melancholy. It moved me, and it made me think.
Above the Waterfall is a powerful portrait of a world in which all are guilty and the law is inadequate to mend such brokenness. It depicts a world in need of redemption, and Rash suggests, that redemption is available if the sinners just look for it. In Becky's words:
The next morning as I'd hiked out, I started to step over a log but my foot jerked back. When I looked on the other side, a copperhead lay coiled. Part of me not sight knew it was there. The atavistic like flint rock sparked. Amazon tribes see Venus in daylight. My grandfather needed no watch to tell time. What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.