BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Ron Rash
Ron Rash excels at creating haunting, affecting portraits of emotion. They don’t often twist, and they don’t often surprise, but at their best (like his most recent novel, Serena, which I loved), they can be darkly riveting.
The short stories in Burning Bright—and they are quite short—largely rely on their premises. If the emotional territory he stakes out is rich enough to yield pay dirt in only a dozen or so pages, these too can be as compelling as Serena.
Rash manages that feat in only a third of the stories here. The rest of the time, unfortunately, there’s simply something missing.
Burning Bright is divided into two sections of six stories each. The first sextet deal almost exclusively with down-on-their-luck characters, as they defend what little they have, try to scratch out a bit of something extra, or lament what they’ve lost. In other words, “Hard Times,” which is both the title of the first story and a fair description of the subject matter of all six.
“Hard Times” deals with a poor couple during the Depression who are getting their eggs stolen out from under their noses. They suspect the even poorer family up the way, and then the husband accuses the wife of driving away their grown children. She argues that survival is most important during hard times, and she taught her kids how to do that, at least. That’s it, and it never really feels dramatic—maybe because the Depression is worse than anything these people are doing to each other.
By contrast, stories from Burning Bright‘s second half use economic hardship as a backdrop instead of a foundation, and find more compelling situations to focus on.
For instance, “Falling Star”—my favorite in the whole book—is about a simple, not-too-smart cement pourer, whose wife is getting a college degree. The pourer loves his wife intensely, but she’s just not around enough anymore, and his dealing with that frustration and jealousy makes for a heartwrenching story. Rash’s best work isn’t so complicated it’s hard to follow, but neither is it so simple as to be summed up in a two-word phrase.
In all these stories, Rash excels at description and homespun dialogue. One example, from “Hard Times”:
“What’s the why of you asking that?” he said. The words were neither angry nor defensive. It struck Jacob that even the man’s voice had been worn down to a bare-boned flatness.
Here’s another one, from the grave-robbing story “Confederate Dead”:
“You leave that truck by the river and the worst gossip on your buddy there is he was fool enough to get drunk and fall in. You bring the law here they’ll know him for a grave robber. Which way you notion his kin would rather recollect him?”
Unfortunately, that talent for an authentic country feel isn’t enough to float the collection.
The low point of Burning Bright is a piece with good prose called “The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars.” In it, a woman named Ruth had lost her child four hours after it was born. Her husband wanted to have another baby, but she adamantly refused to move on from her child’s death; eventually she and her husband separated. Later a biologist tells her a story about how parakeets won’t fly away when one of their flock dies, and they can be easily exterminated because of that.
In this story and a few like it, I found myself saying, “I get it, I get it,” long before the story was over. This one in particular reads like it shouldn’t have been included in the collection.
Another good one, for contrast, is “The Corpse Bird,” in which a man from a blue-collar family struggles to live among his white-collar neighbors. He was the first in his family to go to college, the first to have an indoor job. But the superstitions of his family, an uneducated bunch who lived “by the signs,” are engraved deep in his psyche. When he spies what he thinks is a harbinger of death trying to kill a neighbor’s child, it makes for great drama.
Rash’s talent for haunting emotional portraiture finds its wheelhouse when he’s dealing with internally tortured characters, people whose conflicts with themselves are greater than any challenge they face from others. It’s too bad that happens in less than half these stories.
I’m eagerly anticipating Rash’s next novel, where he’ll have the space to get into his characters’ heads a little more. Until then, the four good stories in this collection aren’t really worth the cover price. Get it from the library and read the second half.