When I turned 4, my father and my uncle, both teachers, began taking me brook trout fishing in the stream behind our home in the Catskill Mountains. Brook trout fishing was a nearly sacrosanct tradition in our family. So was reading. In particular, my dad and my uncle loved Hemingway’s early stories, Faulkner’s novels and Frost’s poems. They often told me that they would go brook trout fishing with these three authors. Otherwise, I never heard them say that they’d go fishing with anyone but me.
Many hundreds of miles to the south, in the lovely but endangered Appalachians of Ron Rash’s superb new novel, brook or speckled trout, as the natives prefer to call them, are becoming scarce. With just three weeks left before his retirement, Les, the county sheriff, is concerned about the escalating conflict between the owner of a local fishing resort and Gerald Blackwelder, an elderly mountain man suspected of poaching.
But Sheriff Les has other unfinished business, too. Out in the backwoods hollows, crystal meth labs have replaced moonshine stills. Then there’s the matter of breaking in the new sheriff. Will he continue Les’s practice of taking monthly hush money from a local marijuana grower?
Divorced for many years, Les is a loner who eats and sleeps by himself and is tormented by the guilt of not having understood his former wife’s depression. He’s romantically attracted to the local forest and parks superintendent, Becky Shytle, a naturalist and poet who claims that although she isn’t autistic, she’s “spent a lot of [her] life trying to be.” Becky has her own demons to deal with. Les sometimes imagines posting something on an Internet dating site:
“Man who encouraged clinically depressed wife to kill herself seeks woman, traumatized by school shooting, who later lived with ecoterrorist bomber.”
Rash is an enormously gifted storyteller who knows exactly how to keep the dramatic tension in his fiction as taut as a fly line with a lunker on the hook. “Above the Waterfall” — the title refers to the brook trout’s pristine habitat — moves seamlessly from present to past and back to the present again as Rash reveals his characters and the mountain fastness that has shaped them. When Gerald Blackwelder is accused of poisoning the catch-and-release trout stream that runs through the resort, Les finds himself caught between his loyalty to an old friend and his duty as a lawman in a place where “a sheriff could bend the law for no other reason than what was the law and what was right sometimes differed.”
One of the delights of reading Rash (he is the author of many works of fiction and four poetry collections) is that all of his characters are sharply different from one another. At the same time, Les never for a moment can afford to forget that, in rural Appalachia, “everyone’s connected, if not by blood, then in some other way.” Becky Shytle, for instance, is not only Les’s sometime girlfriend, but she’s also Gerald’s caregiver and confidante. Becky’s ruminations on the park and its surroundings are also a showcase for Rash’s gorgeous nature descriptions. She often thinks of the natural world in poetic terms:
“The parkway ascends, soon peers over landfall. No one is at the pull-off so I stop. Mountains accordion into Tennessee. Beyond the second ripple, a meadow where I’d camped in June. Just a sleeping bag, no tent. Above me that night tiny lights brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed. Photinus carolinus. Fireflies synchronized to make a single meadow-wide flash, then all dark between.”
And I love Rash’s precise use of the Appalachian idiom, never “regional” in any limiting sense, but always authentic. A character’s father was “bad to drink.” Gerald tells Becky to “feature how dark that corn is.” To arrest someone in the outback hills of North Carolina is to “law him.”
Rash knows his corner of Appalachia the way my dad and uncle knew their mountains. He writes from the inside looking out. He tells us that apple wood burns with colorful flames, that when an otter leaves a stream, its “tail’s drag makes an exclamation point.”
Best of all, he knows the hearts of his people. He’s one of the few writers at work today with the insight, the talent and the vision to show us how sometimes, for all our sorry shortcomings, we’re able to achieve a certain redemption through our capacity for kindness and decency.
I can’t think of many writers in this era that my dad and uncle would have cared to go brook trout fishing with. I am positive, however, that Ron Rash would be at the top of that short list.
Mosher’s new novel, “God’s Kingdom,” will be published in October.
On Monday, Sept. 28 at 6:30 p.m., Ron Rash will be at Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW.
By Ron Rash
Ecco. 252 pp. $26.99