Above the Waterfall

By Ron rash

(HarperCollins, $26.99, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Ron Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University, is a bestselling author who sets his stories in the contemporary South and has won major prizes for his work, including the novels Serena, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight, four story collections, including Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories and three poetry collections. His honors include the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and two O. Henry Prizes.

What is this book about?

Les, a divorced Appalachian sheriff worn out by the horrors wrought by crystal meth addiction and his own problems in a small North Carolina town, is just a month shy of retirement when this story begins. Then his path crosses that of park ranger Becky, who has her own difficult past to overcome. They both revere the beauty of nature in their part of the world, and find themselves caught up – on opposite sides — in the case of a eccentric  old man who may have poisoned a trout stream. Making sense of the case forces them to dig deeply into their own painful pasts, and issues of addiction, ecoterrorism and land disputes reverberate through the novel.

Why you’ll like it:

Rash consistently earns plaudits for his beautiful mastery of style and vivid recreation of life in the deep South. Infused with poetic style, not to mention actual poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins devotee Becky, this is a dark tale told with lyrical loftiness. Fans of Rash’s previous work will be glad to know that his earlier novel, Serena, has been adapted as a soon-to-be-released film starring Jennifer Lawrence, who embodied similar Appalachian angst in her debut star turn in Winter’s Bone.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Rash’s widely celebrated style lends his Southern Gothic–tinged books a suppleness that verges on prose poetry and, in the case of his new novel, elevates a small-town noir story. Les is a gentle sheriff on the verge of retirement in meth-wracked Appalachia, troubled by the petty rivalries that tear at his North Carolina community and his uncertain love affair with park ranger Becky Lytle. Following a nightmarish raid on a meth house, Les becomes drawn into the case of Gerald Blackwelder, a local eccentric accused of poisoning a trout stream in a land dispute. Gerald’s only advocate is Becky—but as a one-time associate of an infamous ecoterrorist named Richard Pelfrey, she’s been wrong before. Operating on opposing sides of an intrigue that touches on family quarrels and sins of the past, Les and Becky unearth a caper heavy in rich Southern crime and violence, one that’s a cut above the rest. Rash writes prose so beautifully that plot and character can come to seem like mere adornments, and certain touches—such the poems Les writes in his off-hours—feel like showcases. But there’s no denying Rash’s grasp of the North Carolina landscape and its reflection in the oft-tortured souls of its denizens, making this novel one of his most successful ventures into poetic humanism.”

Booklist’s starred review says: “Combining suspense with acute observations and flashing insights, Rash tells a seductive and disquieting tale about our intrinsic attachment to and disastrous abuse of the land and our betrayal of our best selves.”

Says Library Journal:  “Author of the New York Times best-selling novel Serena, coming to the big screen this fall in a film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence, Rash again takes us to beautiful but hardscrabble Appalachia. A brutal crime brings together longtime sheriff Les, burned out by the impact of crystal meth on his insular community, and a park ranger named Becky who’s trying to forget the past. “

“For his sixth novel, Rash plays a park ranger’s past traumas against a sheriff’s present crises. When Becky Shytle was in elementary school in Virginia, a gunman invaded her school, killing the teacher who had escorted her to safety. For months afterward she couldn’t speak, finding her voice only in the safe haven of her grandparents’ farm. Later, as a park ranger, a relationship ended badly when her boyfriend became an eco-terrorist and was killed. That time, it was the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who saved her soul, along with the anonymous cave painters of Lascaux. In an unnamed town in the North Carolina mountains, Rash’s invariable setting, Becky, now the superintendent of a state park, has found a kindred spirit in the sheriff, Les. He too turned inward after his wife’s suicide attempt led to an exceptionally painful divorce. Les is 51, retiring after 30 years’ hard grind; just two more items of business left. The first is a meth bust, so nightmarish a rookie officer quits on the spot. (Rash on meth-heads is always riveting.) The second involves the poisoning of trout at a fishing resort. The prime suspect is elderly landowner Gerald Blackwelder, a good man but ornery and Becky’s staunch supporter in all things environmental. She alternates as narrator with Les; her Hopkins-infused musings are a counterpoint to Les’ action-oriented segments. There are six players in the poisoning case, so Les has his work cut out for him, and this storyline takes over the novel. An ordinary whodunit seems to have elbowed aside a more spacious novel about characters whose deep affinities with the natural world, and its interpreters, sustain them among unremitting man-made violence. For once this major American writer appears, uncharacteristically, to have veered off course,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

Rush’s latest exploration of Appalachia can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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