Monday, July 7, 2008

Brainfood #2: Ron Rash

Back to "Brainfood," snapshots of the words and music currently capturing my attention.

Ron Rash's novel The World Made Straight is a beautiful, moving Appalachian coming-of-age novel. It opens with this evocative paragraph:
Travis came upon the marijuana plants while fishing Caney Creek. It was a Saturday, the first week of August, and after helping his father sucker tobacco all morning he'd had the rest of the day to himself. He'd changed into his fishing clothes and driven three miles of dirt road to the French Broad River. Travis drove fast, the rod and reel clattering in the truck bed, red dust rising in his wake. The Marlin .22 slid on its makeshift gun rack with each hard curve. He had the windows down, and if the radio worked he would have had it blasting. The truck was a '66 Ford, battered from a dozen years of farm use. Travis had paid a neighbor five hundred dollars for it three months earlier.
Rash says so much in this paragraph, giving a succinct snapshot of an Appalachian farm boy. He's into fishing, has his .22 in the gun rack, he works on his father's farm, and is self-reliant enough to have bought his own truck. Yet Travis is much deeper than this snapshot - he wants far more from his life than you might surmise. Finding the dope leads him to Leonard, who on one level is a drug dealer hiding from his own past. As Leonard befriends Travis, he transforms himself from small-time dealer to Travis' mentor, bettering himself and the world around him in the process.

Each chapter opens with a passage from the diary of Leonard's Civil War-era ancestor, a doctor who practiced in the region and served as a medic in the war. Through this device the past creeps into the narrative, as the characters each discover that their ancestors played a part in the Civil War's infamous Shelton Laurel Massacre (Travis himself is a Shelton). The novel's characters eventually come to terms with their collective history, sorting out the legacy of the Civil War and the roles their ancestors played.

Rash paints a realistic, detailed portrait of contemporary Appalachia, where demons and redemption come from unexpected sources. A well-told tale that reveals much about how the past and present shape Appalachian life, with wonderfully wrought characters, The World Made Straight captivated me until the end. Highly recommended.

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