One of the best things about any book festival, especially the astonishing clanjamfrie that is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is the discovery of new authors. By this I don’t mean only those authors new to the craft, but those long-established writers you have somehow neglected up until now. Cleverly, Edinburgh frequently pairs authors in its events – not only does this appeal to the Scottish psyche (two for the price of one!) but it allows you see an author you love… and an author you might love. And so it is that my enjoyment of Manuel Rivas brings me rather strangely (but wonderfully) to Ron Rash. Rash is an American writer who already has five novels under his belt as well as a number of short story collections, and it was with one of these I started: Burning Bright, originally published in 2010 and appearing here a year later thanks to Canongate Books.
Rash is not, it must be said, the cheeriest of writers. The final sentence of the first story, ‘Hard Times’ – “He tried to imagine a place worse than he was” – might be taken as a challenge he sets himself in the rest of the collection. The story itself is brutal and unflinching. When Edna discovers eggs missing from her henhouse she suggests to a starving neighbour it might be his dog. He immediately cuts the dog’s throat and walks on saying simply, “You’ll know for sure now.”
The second story, ‘Back of Beyond’ (as you can see the titles themselves suggest the mood – the third is called ‘Dead Confederates’ and by the time we reach the fourth – ‘The Ascent’ – we’re fairly certain it will be meant ironically), tells of a pawnbroker who rescues his brother from his addict son. The only way he can do this is by sending the son away. Again the final line suggests the hopelessness of it all, referring to those addicts who come to his shop pawning whatever they can find to feed their addiction:
“If he was late opening a few minutes, or even an hour, it wouldn’t matter. Whatever time he showed up, they’d still be there.”
Addicts also feature in ‘The Ascent’ as a young boy seeks to cope with his meth-addicted parents. When he finds a diamond ring his father pawns it for drugs – but also to buy him a bike for Christmas. When he sees his parents suffering from withdrawal he offers the bike back to them:
“You can take the bike down to Bryson City and sell it.”
The image of the crashed plane where he finds the ring (see I told you it was ironic) is central to his dreams of a better life.
Generally such dreams only lead to further heartache in stories like ‘Into the Gorge’ and ‘Falling Star’. The latter is a particularly touching portrait of a man desperate to keep his marriage alive. Even when in ‘Dead Confederates’ the narrator makes some money it comes at a price:
“There’s always a price to be paid for anything you get. I wish it weren’t so…but if it’s the worst to come of all that happened I can live with it.”
Ultimately, living with it is about the best Rash’s characters can hope for. But while they are generally not to be admired, neither do they feel pitied. Rash’ writing gives eloquence to the lives of the inarticulate, the marginalised and the forgotten. Despite their often grim subject matter it is difficult to describe these stories as anything other than beautiful.