Nothing Gold Can Stay, a new short story collection by Ron Rash, below, is this Appalachian author's best book since his 2008 Serena. If Serena becomes famous as the basis for a coming movie starring Bradley Cooper and Oscar- winning Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence, never forget that it began as a fierce, breathtaking book, one of the greatest American novels in recent memory.
Serena, set during the Depression, is a period piece, the kind of fiction for which Rash is best known. But Nothing Gold Can Stay is excitingly versatile, covering time periods from the Civil War to the present and ranging in mood from wryly comic to brutal. The 14 stories are united by clean, tough specificity, courtly backwoods diction and a capacity for sending shivers. (Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling would have loved the story A Sort of Miracle. )
They're also tied together by the haunting evanescence summoned by Robert Frost in the poem for which the book is named:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The collection includes two stories from Ecotone, a North Carolina literary journal "that seeks to reimagine place." In one of them, Cherokee, Rash (who shares the hometown Boiling Springs, N.C., with Earl Scruggs) reimagines Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort, a place not far from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, where he teaches.
But Cherokee doesn't tell the usual story of hapless down-and-outers blowing their hopes by gambling. It does begin with a young married couple, Danny and Lisa, hoping to turn $157 into $1,000. Danny is boyish, not only in appearance but "in that he always believed that the next time, unlike the last, he'd somehow get away with it."
Danny has good luck — at first — playing slots. Then he and Lisa have to decide whether to quit, making a choice that almost always leads characters into trouble. Ultimately this is a story about wisdom, not money. Its ending is not about whether Danny and Lisa will be able to afford to keep their truck. It's about what kind of lives they've chosen to lead.
A Sort of Miracle, the other story from Ecotone, is even better. It tells the darkly funny tale of an accountant named Denton and his two no-good brothers-in-law, Marlboro and Baroque. The creatively named brothers come from Florida, but they have lately been parked on Denton's sofa, watching TV shows about medical miracles and driving Denton crazy.
Thanks to them Denton has begun having sexual problems with his wife, Susie. He decides he can be cured with Chinese medicine requiring the paws and gall bladder of a bear. So he makes the brothers take him hunting in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When disaster strikes, the brothers' knowledge of so-called miracles suddenly matters. The upshot of this adventure is both horrific and hilarious, and it underscores Rash's great gift for hard-hitting surprise endings.
A Servant of History, previously unpublished, is another gem. It sends James Wilson, a pompous British academic, to the same Appalachian town where Lisa and Danny are from, in search of ballads with English roots. "He was no university don muttering Gradgrindian facts facts facts in a lecture hall's chalky air, but a man venturing among the new world's Calibans," James thinks, in self-congratulatory fashion. He has no idea what kind of hillbilly Calibans he will be facing.
"England," one local says to James. "It's war you hell from?" Rash thickens the Carolina accents to suit James' foreign ears and gives him a rustic guide to the region. As the town's well-maintained houses give way to unpainted mountain cabins, James' heart leaps with joy. His guide takes him to meet a whole family, warning: "They can be a techy lot, if they taken a dislikin to you."
Hearing that the family is named McSomething, James decides to stress the Scottish heritage that is not really his. "I too proudly claim the heritage of thistle and bagpipe," he says. This leads Rash into a black comedy of errors involving tartans, ballads, a hot poker, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the price of underestimating humble-looking locals. Though A Servant of History is the story least typical of Rash's other work, it's a great introduction to his writerly goals and to what Nothing Gold Can Stay offers.
The Trusty, the first and not best story in the book, which appeared in The New Yorker, is much less interesting. This tale of a chain-gang prisoner and a young married woman who are equally eager to escape captivity is reminiscent of Rash's most recent novel, The Cove, and of the ways he uses isolation, loneliness and what the wife calls "thirsting" ("Chet ain't never been able to stanch it, but you can") in his fiction. Then there's his way with country dialogue: When the convict woos the wife with escaping by train, he says, "Stick with me and you'll ride the cushions."
Nothing Gold Can Stay contains more fine stories than can be done justice here. Look for the ghostliness of Something Rich and Strange, in which a girl on a picnic steps into a river and is swept away, after which the story follows her into the water. ("In the undercut all remained quiet and still, the girl's transformation unrushed, gentle.") Enjoy Rash's take on hippie culture in The Magic Bus, featuring two traveling hippies and a landlocked farm girl. Finally, savor Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out, in which two old men, a cow and a calf struggling to be born are overwhelmed by a sense of their good fortune. It's one of the stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay that finds subtle nuances in that unforgiving title.
'Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories'
By Ron Rash
239 pps. Ecco. $24.99.