[Published on Liticism, April 11 2012]
When Ron Rash isn’t penning fiction and poetry, he works as a Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. It is Rash’s ability to capture this mysterious terrain, which ranges from the southern end of New York State to northern tip of Mississippi, that has always been his strength as a writer. He revels in descriptions of its unique ecology, its folklore and superstitions, its hardened characters and their anachronistic turns of phrase. Chronicling the area through his temporally vast oeuvre, Rash’s latest novel The Cove takes us into South Carolina in the midst of World War One.
Siblings Laurel and Hank live in the shadow of what locals term ‘the cove’, a landscape whose atmosphere is thought to correlate with its eternal shadows — we are told from the opening pages that this is a place ‘where only bad things happened.’ Townfolk are convinced that the cove’s unbearable gloaminess curses all who inhabit it, making haste to leave before the sun goes down. (This setting also appeared in Rash’s short story ‘Hard Times’ in Burning Bright, whose backdrop was a cove ‘so damn dark a man about has to break light with a crowbar.’)
Indeed, the ominous images that punctuate this landscape are almost biblical in proportion — fields of dying chestnut trees; soon-to-be-extinct South Carolina parakeets that rain from the sky (these birds are remembered as a historical curiosity in Burning Bright’s ‘The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars’); a tree adorned with shards of harlequin debris meant to ward off evil; a writhing knot of copperheads and rattlesnakes discovered beneath a tree stump in the dead of winter; a half-naked dead man, limbs bloodied and askew, suspended from a bridge as a warning.
Each central character bears some kind of physical mark that indicates their otherness, placing the novel in the Southern Gothic tradition of writers like Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Protagonist Laurel bears a ‘purple winestain’ birthmark that the townfolk are convinced is the mark of her curse — local legend has it that her father died from holding the wine-stained baby to his breast. Hank is missing a hand, a disfigurement obtained in the war. But unlike Laurel, his injury has won him favour with the townfolk, as if the curse had been severed along with his appendage.
With a wave of anti-German sentiment sweeping the country, this wartime fervour mirrors the small-town mentality that has ostracised Laurel and Hank throughout their lives. Under the guidance of Chauncey Feith, a cowardly yet ambitious young soldier placed in charge of recruitment for the area, German books are confiscated from the university library and a professor is thrown from his post as a Hun sympathiser. Ron Rash’s simple description of an umlaut perfectly captures this wartime paranoia: ‘The language looked sinister, especially the two dots that resembled a rattlesnake bite.’
Laurel and Hank’s relationship has always been like that of twins, united by their shared isolation to the point that they are almost telepathic. When Hank gets engaged and prepares to leave the farm, Laurel becomes so lonely she’s convinced she may be a ghost. By some act of fate, however, Laurel discovers a stranger in the cove, a musician whose song articulates the sadness of her soul (‘as if the music was about every loss that had ever been’). Walter too bears a mark of difference — unable to talk, read or write — but he has a secret that may make him most other of all.
Comparisons are often made between Ron Rash and Cormac McCarthy, who has also set much of his work in the Appalachia. Parallels can be drawn between The Cove and Outer Dark, McCarthy’s 1968 novel about a brother and sister who live in an isolated woodland, but this also highlights the two author’s differences. While they both revel in the linguistic possibilities of this locale — the strange similes, the archaic vernacular, the peculiarities of local flora and fauna — Rash and McCarthy operate on a different moral register. McCarthy’s characters are often amoral to the point of nihilism — the question that the boy asks his father in The Road, ‘how do we know if we’re the good guys?’, hangs over McCarthy’s oeuvre. In The Cove, however, the distinctions between good and bad, between heroes and villains, are clear-cut.
At its heart, The Cove is a love story about two misfits who come together against the odds. In the world of the Southern Gothic though, such romances are never without tragedy. This is a simple tale, but Rash delivers it with characteristic grace.
The Cove is out now through Text. RRP $29.95