The World Made Straight is a fairly straightforward narrative, a character driven coming-of-age novel in which a number of traps are set for our adolescent main character to stumble into – literally so, in the novel’s excruciating opening, when he steps into a bear trap. He has discovered an illegal field of marijuana and returns twice to harvest it to make some easy money. The third visit leads to his fateful encounter with the trap. The young man, Travis Shelton, is a troubled but essentially decent high school drop-out, someone who feels the need to rebel without necessarily having any particular cause. The aftermath of the bear trap incident gives him a cause, however, in the form of a serious rift with his father which causes him to leave home and live with another drop-out, the disgraced teacher Leonard Shuler who is now operating as a drug and moonshine dealer to the youth of the community.
A bare description of the plot and characters wouldn’t do the novel justice. It would make it appear slight, cliched and predictable, with characters out of central casting and a too straightforward unfurling of the plot elements. To an extent, these would be justified criticisms, but overall such an analysis would seem unfair. There is a depth to the novel which isn’t immediately apparent but which resonates much longer than would be the case with cheaper novelistic fare. And, as ever, with southern fiction (Rash almost fits into that category, certainly in sentiment, if not necessarily in precise geographic location) the underlying theme revolves around time and history and the ties that bind us and the difficulty of the past.
In some ways it is too pat. The two central characters, a generation apart, are kindred spirits. The elder, Leonard, sees in Travis a chance to atone for the mistakes in his own life by ensuring the young man pursues his education and escapes the stultifying fate that otherwise awaits him. One could get away with that as a basic premise, but for them each to be descendents of participants on different sides of the Civil War, participants who came to blows in a particularly unsavoury incident, begins to establish a backstory that feels suspiciously manufactured. And just at the moment of his crisis, Travis finds himself a girlfriend who is, depending on your viewpoint, a steadying influence or a controlling restraint. The tension this provides, of course, ensures a suitable narrative propulsion, but there is perhaps a worry of writing-by-numbers here. One can imagine a writer wanting to create a character like Travis and wondering how to reveal his fears about independence and constraint: a girlfriend, natch, one who wants to do the best for him but whose ministrations can be taken by Travis as being controlling. And something will have to propel the final crisis which leads to the novel’s climax: step forward the inflexible father character, someone whose love Travis craves but whose upbringing cannot allow him to unbend and show affection to his son. There is a lack of naturalness about the plot, then, and it is exacerbated by the not wholly convincing subplot about the Civil War atrocity which brings the latter-day descendents together in unpredictable ways.
All of this sounds faintly damning, and yet I think this is a good novel, containing some very fine writing. I seem to recall having to make very similar clarifications in earlier reviews of Ron Rash. Furthermore, I started this review by saying one day he will write something brilliant, and I feel fairly sure I’ve said the same thing before. The reason is that Rash is a brilliant conjurer of words but he doesn’t, as yet, seem able to marshall a wholly convincing plot. My feeling is that he tries too hard. His writing has the feel, to me, of someone who plots everything in detail before he begins. This has the effect of straightjacketing the narrative when his writing demands that it should fly free.
What would be truly fascinating would be to rewrite this story without the character of Leonard, or without the requisite bad guy, Carlton Toomey, or without Travis’s girlfriend. Each of these feels too carefully defined in order to propel Travis towards his crisis. Each of them, in isolation, might work, but en masse they feel like a manufactured supporting cast. Life tells us that crises usually emerge anyway, so Travis would at some stage have encountered the difficulties he does in this novel without these people. Perhaps he could have done so in a more naturalistic way, which could have created a novel of outstanding quality because Rash’s writing, as opposed to his plotting, is itself beautifully naturalistic. His grasp of description and mood is exemplary and if this can be allied to better plotting and characterisation Ron Rash is capable of producing a masterpiece.