Published August 2020 by Doubleday
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
Ron Rash has long been a revered presence in the landscape of American letters. A virtuosic novelist, poet, and story writer, he evokes the beauty and brutality of the land, the relentless tension between past and present, and the unquenchable human desire to be a little bit better than circumstances would seem to allow (to paraphrase Faulkner).
In these ten stories, Rash spins a haunting allegory of the times we live in—rampant capitalism, the severing of ties to the natural world in the relentless hunt for profit, the destruction of body and soul with pills meant to mute our pain—and yet within this world he illuminates acts of extraordinary decency and heroism. Two of the stories have already been singled out for accolades: "Baptism" was chosen by Roxane Gay for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2018, and "Neighbors" was selected by Jonathan Lethem for The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. And in revisiting Serena Pemberton, Rash updates his bestselling parable of greed run amok as his deliciously vindictive heroine returns to the North Carolina wilderness she left scarred and desecrated to make one final effort to kill the child that threatens all she has accomplished.
I've been a fan of Ron Rash's for more than ten years, since I read Serena (my review). I'm always eager to read more of his work; when I saw this collection included a novella based on Serena, I knew I wanted to read it right away. I thought I might race through the short stories to get to the novella but two things stopped me: I began to worry that the novella might not live up to my memories of the book on which it was based and the short stories are too good to be rushed.
Richard Price, who knows brutal writing, calls Ron Rash a "gorgeous brutal writer." In everything Rash writes, there is a brutality and these stories are no exception: a group of Confederate soldiers threaten to burn down the barn and take everything of value from a young mother and her children, an ex-con tries to airdrop toys to the children he loves but has been banned from seeing, a kidnapped young woman is turned into a drug addict, and an abusive ex-husband demands to be baptized so he can marry a his former wife's young sister. But Rash's darkness is never entirely without heart and hope, saving his work from complete despair. Last Bridge Burned helps us see how small acts of kindness can make all the difference; The Belt showed us the ultimate gift of love. And, my God, his writing is as incredible as it was when I first picked up his work. From small slices of a life to epic tales, Rash gives readers vivid imagery and memorable, relatable characters.
And the novella? It gave me everything I wanted - Serena Pemberton at her Lady Macbeth best, the battle between human lives and profits, astonishing violence, and tenderness. Perhaps, best of all, Rash left me with the hope that we may not yet have seen the end of Serena.
There aren't a lot of reviews of this collection out there so you're going to have to trust me on this one. If you can handle the darkness and violence, and are a fan of short stories, I cannot recommend this collection enough,