'Above the Waterfall' by Ron Rash: Beautiful writing, haunting themes

Ron Rash_ Please Credit Ulf Andersen2
Ron Rash, author of "Above the Waterfall." Photo: Ulf Andersen

Above the Waterfall

By Ron Rash

Ecco. 272 pp. $26.99

Reviewed by

Lynn Rosen

Ron Rash had me at hello.

More specifically, he had me at:

"Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else ready for night except night itself."

It was love at first page of Above the Waterfall, the new novel by this lyrical and evocative writer acclaimed for his novels, short stories, and poetry. His work takes place in the mountains of North Carolina. And the lives of his characters are irrevocably tied to the land. Their stories speak of loss and longing and of the power struggles between weak and strong. You might call Rash our Appalachian Shakespeare.

In Above the Waterfall, Locust Creek State Park, already well established, now is bumping up against the fancy resort next door. The story unfolds primarily through the point of view of two characters: Becky Shytle, a park ranger traumatized by her childhood experience as the victim of a school shooting; and Les, who, at 51, is about to retire after 30 years as the town sheriff. When Les tells us early on that he has to get through only three more weeks before retirement and that he hopes they will be calm ones, we know we're in for trouble.

That trouble hinges on a number of factors. There is Gerard, the crotchety old man who refuses to sell his property to the resort, and who may or may not be poaching the supply of trout the resort keeps for its paying guests. There is C.J. Gant, PR director at the resort, who grew up in the town with a father who was a drunk, and who had vowed never to return. There are the illegal meth labs out in the valley that Les and his team try to root out, dressed in hazmat suits and often encountering not only danger but also some gruesome finds. And there is Becky's narration of nature as she traverses the land she loves, along with fragments of the poetry in her notebook.

Memory and the present are inextricably linked. We get insights into the childhood traumas that drive these characters and haunting questions about what they did vs. what they might have done. Who will get a chance to make up for past mistakes? Who will shoulder the consequences?

What roils below the surface is a haunting picture of the devastating effects of memory and guilt, and potent questions of loyalty and responsibility.

Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park. She can be reached at lynn@openbookphilly.