What is most impressive about these stories is that, although some fairly grotesque events unfold, Rash never tries to shock. He doesn't need to. He is not a writer given to excess or unnecessary verbiage. He shocks with his honesty, with the starkness of the descriptions, leaving the reader to imagine for himself what must be unfolding in the minds of these characters.
The stories deal with fairly typical southern material, but never in a stale way. We have family relationships and hardships, war, (in particular the Civil War), those unshakeable connections to myth and tradition, the ambivalent approach to education and so on. Together, they form a cohesive study of life on the margins, in adversity, dealing with emotional and physical trauma.
The collection’s opener, Hard Times, a story of an egg-thieving animal, includes an excruciatingly painful scene that lingers long in the memory.
Dead Confederates is a brilliant example of writing craft. Most beginning writers, having come up with this idea, would have ruined it by trying to turn it into a thriller and teasing the reader with a shock ending. Rash, realising it would have been more predictable than shocking, dispenses with any disappointment by more or less telling you the ending in the first paragraph. And this revelation, paradoxically, makes the story all the more tense. It is a great text to study for anyone learning their writing craft.
Dead Confederates links the Civil War to the present day. Return also counterpoints war and peace, in this case interweaving a man’s wartime memories with his post-war travails. Lincolnites, meanwhile, is set during the Civil War, reminding us of some of the horrors of that painful episode.
Falling Star takes on a standard southern idea, the dangers of a good education, and does a good job of inverting the usual trope. Two stories detail drug abuse and its effect on families. The first, Back of Beyond, is harrowing. The second, The Ascent, is also harrowing, but at the same time it is simply beautiful. Again, Rash’s control of the form is absolute. He paints a convincing picture of an adventurous eleven year old boy, one whom all of us will know someone like and, indeed, whom some of us might have been like when we were that age. But then the tenor shifts: we come to understand more about this boy, his secret pain, the difficulty which besets his young life, and his solitariness becomes unbearably sad. It makes the tragic end entirely convincing.
Burning Bright, the title story, is another tale of fractured families, in which a woman worries that her husband may be an arsonist. Waiting for the End of the World features a musician finding a passage through life, shunned by his family, lost in music, but not as lost as he might wish to be. Sometimes the pain of consciousness is a heavy burden. Myths and legends and ancient beliefs occur in a number of the stories. In particular, The Woman Who Believe in Jaguars tells another story of a damaged individual, clinging to beliefs about the old south. Into the Gorge, meanwhile, presents us with traditions through generations, in which memories of a long-dead grandmother resurface in a moment of current crisis, portending death. Portents of death, too, along with old ways and country traditions, provide a chilling backdrop to The Corpse Bird. There isn’t a dud in this collection. Some soar. For me, Dead Confederates and The Ascent are the stand-outs, but every story provides much to enjoy.