Even if Ron Rash wasn’t one of my favourite writers I’d have picked this one out of a crowd: its jacket is a thing of beauty, enticing you to pick it up. Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. He’s also a poet, more evident in this new novel than in previous books I’ve read by him. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who finds himself faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion.
Les has a few weeks before he hands over his badge to his young colleague. He’s lived all his life in the mountains, most of them as a sheriff. He’s an accomplished watercolourist, written off as sissy by all but one of his schoolmates and bullied for it. C. J. had also been the butt of a good deal of abuse but seemed to shrug it off effortlessly, heading off to college, marrying and building a career for himself. Now he’s back, working for the local resort and intent on providing the future for his sons that his own parents failed to provide for him. When the river is poisoned with kerosene, killing the trout stock provided for the resort’s guests, the finger is pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land. Becky, the park ranger, with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Faced with what seems to be cast iron evidence, Les is inclined to accept Gerald’s guilt but his instinct tells him otherwise. Far from winding down, it seems that Les must solve a case which will tax his moral framework, reminding him of his past before he can take himself off to his mountain cabin.
The most striking element of Rash’s writing for me is his use of language which seems even more evident in this novel than his others. He punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Les, his tentative relationship with Becky is a ‘wary out-of-step dance’; ‘A man entering his coffin’ he thinks as the freshly meth-addicted Darby walks into his darkened house. In contrast Becky holds ‘sunspill like rain’ in the palm of her hand, sees a slug’s body as ‘a slimy slow lugging’ and admires ‘a black snake’s cast-off stocking’ caught in a tree. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. The Appalachians may be idyllically beautiful but they’re far from untouched by the challenges of modern life: Les and his crew regularly raid houses for the meth that’s decimating the population while Becky struggles with memories of the school massacre that tore apart her childhood, seeking healing in nature. Les’ long experience has taught him to see humanity in shades of grey rather than the black and white that his young successor perceives but Rash leaves us to draw our own conclusions, allowing space for redemption to step in. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.