Monday, April 01, 2013

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

One of the few advantages of finally succumbing to the winter virus that has been circulating round my workplace since November, striking down everyone in turn, is that I’m too fuzzy-headed for my thesis research so have to fall back on the delights of pleasure reading. And so on to another Ron Rash acquisition from my recent soujourn in Kentucky. I’ve read most of Rash’s fiction now, but One Foot in Eden, the one I’ve come to last, is actually his first novel. What a first novel, what a talent.

Where to locate this? When I’ve written about Ron Rash before, I’ve labelled him a “southern” writer, and he is. The southern preoccupations are there: family, progress, agrarianism, the advent of technology, change, loss of connection with the past. All of those themes are threaded through his work: the vicious Serena unsettling the old ways in Serena (soon to be a film starring Jennifer Lawrence), the environmentalist backdrop to Saints at the River, the pernicious memories of the Civil War in The World Made Straight, all of them have strong southern undertones. And the language, and the careful depiction of nature and landscape and our place within it, again these are classic southern tropes. So in a sense, yes, it’s fair to say Ron Rash is a southern writer. But then again.

I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about southern writing to compile a sustained argument here, but there feels like there is a different dynamic at play here. Rash is from the Carolinas, from mountain country and, while many of the preoccupations and the conservative outlook of Appalachia and what you might call the deep south are undoubtedly similar, there is a different texture to them. Perhaps what I mean is that there is less certainty about Appalachian outlooks, less dogmatism, and maybe even a sense that things might just be bad because they’re bad, not because brute progress is making them that way. The Appalachian God, too, seems less punishing than the deep southern God of Flannery et al. There is less horrified certainty to their outlook.

But what of One Foot in Eden? This is a deeply impressive piece of writing, particularly given that it’s a first novel. There’s a confidence about it that is remarkable. Will Alexander is the local sheriff in a small South Carolina town in the 1950s, a period of drastic change. The backdrop of the novel is typically southern, with the imminent flooding of the Jocassee valley to create the new Carolina Power Jocassee Dam. Thus, we have the southern preoccupation with the relentless march of progress and the loss of connection with the past. This is brought dramatically to life with the horrifying descriptions of the way the local graveyards are dealt with by the authorities: the graves cannot be left intact, and not only for sentimental reasons: the coffins, filled as they are with oxygen, will break loose and eventually rise to the surface.

The key dramatic incident in the novel is the disappearance of Holland Winchester, a veteran of the Korean conflict and a typically combative, truculent southern misfit. His mother tells Sheriff Alexander that Holland has been murdered by neighbour Billy Holcombe because he has been having an affair with Billy’s wife, Amy. The rest of the novel is relayed in turn by the sheriff, Amy, Billy and, years later, by Billy and Amy’s son, and finally by the deputy sheriff. It is a murder mystery of sorts, although there is little mystery about whodunnit, so much as howdunnit. What we have, then, is an analysis of human nature and the complex, almost impossible inter-relationship of human beings with their disparate impulses and ambitions and fears and concerns. It is beautifully handled: such a stylistically distinct novel, told in different segments from the points of view of different characters, can be difficult to pull off naturally. Too often, such experiments feel exactly like that – experiments in voice and structure, rather than an organic story. But this is genuinely a story, and a riveting read at that. Through hearing the same events told from the conflicting points of views of each of the protagonists the reader obtains a far deeper understanding of the chronology which surrounded the tragedy. In a conventional narrative, one imagines an author would be forced to revert to all sorts of “show and tell” convolutions in order to get inside the heads of those characters who do not form the substantive point of view. Such techniques become very wearying after a while, and the lack of artifice in this novel is refreshing indeed.

If I have a quibble with the novel, it is probably the subplot featuring the old, witch-like Widow Glendower. She is an outcast, someone mistrusted, disliked and feared by the community, but a throwback to previous generations who possesses a healer’s knowledge of the old natural potions and treatments which served before the advent of modern medicine. I can see how she fits into the novel, I understand she is symbolic of the difficulty of communication and the danger of progress and the place for tradition. I see that. But nonetheless that whole subplot feels engineered and inorganic to me. It is not of a piece with the rest of the plot, which benefits greatly from its narrative tightness. It feels like it has been included to permit the – admittedly impressive – scene right at the end, years later, when her coffin is exposed by the works to flood the valley.

But whatever, this is a very fine piece of novel writing. It is mystifying why Rash isn't better known.

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