When a prisoner on a chain gang is sent to the nearest farmhouse to fetch water in the backwoods of North Carolina, author Ron Rash sets the scene for a sterling collection of short stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay. They span a range of years and an even wider range of emotions.
Rash’s 14 stories are broken into three sections and set in a variety of eras and places. He introduces a would-be hippie in the 1960s, college-bound sweethearts of today and their sad evolution into meth-heads, and a spare but touching tale of the working-class parents of a young woman serving in Afghanistan.
In his opening story, The Trusty, readers are taken back to the Depression to meet a young thief facing a five-year sentence, and a young farmer’s wife facing a sentence of her own in a loveless marriage to a much older man.
And soon enough, the trusty — aptly named Sinkler — is sinking his claws and plans into young Lucy as he plots their dual escape.
“An hour would pass before anyone started looking for him, and even then they’d search first along the road. ... The suddenness of the opportunity unsettled him. He should take a couple of days, think it out. The grit in the gears would be Lucy. Giving her the slip in Asheville would be nigh impossible, so he’d be with her until the next stop.”
But the hallmark of some of Rash’s stories are twists you don’t see coming, and he gives readers a doozy in his opening story.
In Twenty-Six Days, the title spells out the amount of time before Kerrie, the narrator’s daughter, gets to come home from her military service in Afghanistan. Her father is a janitor at the local college, and her mother is a waitress at a diner. They depend on the kindness of a family doctor to talk to their daughter via Skype and accept books for her from one of the college professors with a heart — a rarity among most of the anti-war intellectuals served by both the mother and father.
It is Rash’s elegant understatement that gives the parents life:
“Over at the ATM machine, students pull out bank cards like winning lottery tickets. Probably not one of them ever thinks that while they’re sitting in a classroom or watching basketball games kids their own age are getting blown up by IEDs.”
Each of the stories in this collection comes to life under the power of Rash’s muscular way with words, and that’s what makes this book sing. Whether it’s a tale of a woman’s dowry or the fallout from a young girl’s drowning, the author creates a slice of life so authentic you can hear the rushing water and see the falling tears.