Book review: ‘Above the Waterful’ poetic, contemporary morality tale
After meeting acclaimed author Ron Rash at the 2013 Literary Sojourn, I vowed to read everything he publishes. I appreciate Rash’s work for his ability to mesmerize with atmospheric language and develop characters that haunt the reader long after closing the pages. Rash is a master of the southern gothic genre, and his latest novel, “Above the Waterfall,” published Sept. 8, fulfilled my high expectations.
“Above the Waterfall” is a poetic, contemporary morality tale set in a small Appalachian town. Les, the local sheriff, is weeks away from retiring and weary from years on the front lines of the crystal meth boom devastating his hometown.
His close friend and one-time lover, Becky, is a park ranger who continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress after surviving a school shooting as a young girl. Becky withdraws into the sanctuary of the mountains and finds comfort in words. Chapters alternate between the straightforward prose from Les’ point of view and the poetry flowing through Becky’s head. The chapters narrated by Becky are filled with lyrical, sensual descriptions of the mountains and root the story in its western North Carolina setting.
As it goes in rural, picturesque towns, tourism has taken off and provides meaningful economic opportunity where before, there was little. A fishing lodge on the fringe of town generates wealth but is also the center of land disputes, clashes between traditional and contemporary values, greed and dishonesty.
Gerald, an old-time mountain man with little left to live for except his deep friendship with Becky, shares a property boundary with the fishing lodge. When the stream running through the resort is poisoned with kerosene, and brook trout wash onto the banks belly-up, Gerald is the primary suspect. Becky stands by Gerald as she realizes their relationship is the most stable and closest thing to family she has had since her grandparents died years before.
As sheriff, Les’ longtime loyalty to folks in his town is tested and strained. He blurs the lines between what the law dictates and what he knows is right and true. However, readers should not be fooled into thinking of Les as the moral center of this story; Les’ tenure as sheriff has been corrupt, too. His actions forced me to return to the classic questions: Does the end justify the means? Can a person be redeemed?
Though this story is predominantly gloomy and critiques much of the ugliness in human nature, it is punctuated with moments of beauty. There is love, loyalty and connection between the characters as timeless and beautiful as the Appalachian mountains in which they reside.
Emily Katzman is assistant manager of Off the Beaten Path.
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