Saturday, May 17, 2008
A look at Ron Rash’s new collection of fiction, Chemistry and Other Stories
Book Review by Lonnie Busch
In Chemistry and Other Stories, Ron Rash’s most recent collection of short stories from Picador, Rash does exactly what Aristotle suggested to young writers over 2000 years ago; he starts his stories in medias res—“In the middle of things.” Aristotle knew that for a story to be successful, it had to focus on the main conflict immediately. Rash executes Aristotle’s idea flawlessly in this fine collection.
The spring my father spent three weeks at Broughton Hospital, he came back to my mother and me pale and disoriented, two pill bottles clutched in his right hand as we made our awkward reunion in the hospital lobby. So begins “Chemistry,” the title story of Rash’s collection. Rash drops the reader in the middle of things by cutting to the heart of the conflict in the first sentence. He follows “Chemistry” with “Last Rite.”—When the sheriff stepped onto her porch, he carried his hat in his hands, so she knew Elijah was dead.
If you study Rash’s lead-ins closely, you’ll see a pattern emerge; Rash always starts with characters—characters at the edge of peril, conflict, or confusion, characters with their bare toes curled over the precipice of change. Lately, it seems, fiction in some of the finest literary journals attempts to entice readers into its fictional web with initial offerings no more challenging than weather reports, bird nests, and hammered metal bells. Rash understands the structure of effective storytelling and how to imbue a tale with urgency. He starts so precisely, it’s hard to imagine his stories could begin anywhere other than where they do. His lead sentence always elicits questions and evokes mystery. Once his story’s in full swing, Rash sketches in supporting events and backstory with the deft of a magician, never releasing the spell he casts with his initial image.
I met Lee Ann McIntyre on a date suggested by my wife. From Rash’s story, “Honesty.” How can bird nests and metal bells possibly compete with lead-ins like these? Or the first sentence of “Dangerous Love.”—When Ricky threw his knife and the blade tore my blouse and cut into flesh eight inches from my heart, it was certain as the blood trickling down my arm that something in our relationship had gone wrong. This is powerful writing and exquisite storytelling. Let’s not forget, Rash is also a poet. He knows about economy of language and writes like he has to pay for each and every word out of his own pocket. John Gardner, author of October Light, Mickelsson’s Ghost, and many other titles, once remarked that every line of poetry should be “red meat.” Rash obviously knows to stick to the main course, serving it up hot from the inception.
When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after four months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. From “Pemberton’s Bride.”
Like a riptide, Rash’s openings sweep the reader into the story, making compelling promises to his audience, and delivering on those promises each and every time. These aren’t tricks, or slight of pen; this is solid storytelling at its best. After the second time his hardware store had been robbed, both times at night, Marshall Vaughn bought a pistol. That from “Deep Gap,” and this from Rash’s O. Henry Award winning short story, “Speckled Trout.”—Lanny came upon the marijuana plants while fishing Caney Creek. This, like many of the other beginnings in this collection, is simply elegant and astonishingly provocative. Chemistry and Other Stories is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable collections I’ve read in a long time, and could serve as a valuable primer for new writers and veterans alike, a precious reminder of how powerful story beginnings can be.