Country Noir: My Father Like a River by Ron Rash

My Father Like a River includes two short stories: the title story and the longer The Trusty.  The Trusty was also published in Rash’s short story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay.  It’s as good now as it was when I read Nothing Gold Can Stay, but I’m disappointed to see a story I already own and have read.  As is usually the case with Rash, both stories take place in the mountains of NC.

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Nonfiction: Hill of Beans: Coming of Age in the Last Days of the Old South by John Snyder

Snyder grew up not far from me—just one county to the west, and even closer to the NC-SC line (albeit long before I was a twinkle in my mama’s eye)—so my interest was immediate and likely fulfilled regardless of quality.  But, mercifully, Hill of Beans isn’t lacking in any quality.

Snyder’s family wasn’t squalidly impoverished or even dirt-floor-poor, just the kind of poor just about everyone was back then before men like Snyder went out and created a whole lot of wealth that raised all boats.  He had the kind of early life a lot of us had back then—a stern father, an awesome uncle, a hateful old aunt.  He even, like me, left for a school in Chicago, although I made a much, much better decision.

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Country Noir: Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

It is remarkable that it has taken this long to see a novel published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  That work, Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, is a good’n’.

Cowney Sequoyah is a young Cherokee man.  A club foot has saved him from (or robbed him of, depending on the perspective) service in WWII.  The dearth of available labor and the need of somewhere to house foreign dignitaries/prisoners gives him the opportunity for good work outside of the Qualla Boundary on the grounds crew at the Grover Park Inn.  An initial carpool there brings him into the orbit of Essie Stamper, a beautiful young Cherokee woman working as a maid at the Grove Park for the summer.

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Country Noir: When These Mountains Burn by David Joy

When These Mountains Burn may be David Joy’s best novel yet.  Fires are burning across the mountains of North Carolina in late 2016, and wildfire smoke casts a heavy pall over even the unburned areas.  More figurative fires are burning as well, with an equally heavy pall cast by the opioid epidemic.  Those figurative fires will touch Ray, a mountain of a man, a retired forester, and the father of an addict, and Denny Rattler, an addict himself, a petty thief, and a Cherokee.

(If you heard about these fires on the news, and you probably didn’t, it was likely only when they hit Gatlinburg.)

“The way these mountains have been burning, I knew there was some kind of end coming.  I knew it.  I just couldn’t see it.  I come here to kill you.”

The use of the fires as a literary device is both obvious and effective.  Coyotes provide a minor literary device, with Ray ruminating that “he’d watched mountain people and culture be damn near extirpated over the course of a few decades, while those dogs had been persecuted for a century and thrived.”

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Country Noir: In the Valley by Ron Rash

Ron Rash is a master of the short story, but a reader’s conclusion on In the Valley will depend on the title story, a novella set in the world of and featuring the title character from Serena that takes up half the volume.

I am not the target audience, to the extent it is possible for me to not be the target audience for a Rash work.  Serena remains my least favorite Rash novel, and any attempt at another story featuring Serena is handicapped by the novel telling the end of her story.  Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by In the Valley, and it is well accompanied by the preceding stories.

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Country Noir: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Country noir isn’t quite regional.  Or, rather, it is regional in that it is a subgenre that demands a sense of place.  But it isn’t tied to any particular region.  It does even really need to be set in the country.  You could (and someone really should) write an excellent country noir set in the former hillbilly enclave in Uptown Chicago.  That being said, the western half of North Carolina has provided the setting for a truly disproportionate number of quality country noir tales.  Ron Rash is the dean of the country noir oeuvre (fight me, Daniel Woodrell fans), but ably following in his footsteps are David Joy and Wiley Cash.

This Dark Road to Mercy is my first Wiley Cash novel (he has written three).  I found it a flawed work, but a thoroughly enjoyable one nonetheless and one that shows frequent flashes of brilliance.

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Fiction: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain begins with Inman, a confederate soldier, laid up convalescing in a military hospital.  As he heals, his dread of returning to the fighting grows and he eventually decides to strike out for home and his left love—in the shadows of Cold Mountain (near Brevard in modern-day western North Carolina).  That left love, Ada, a preacher’s daughter originally from Charleston, meanwhile, is trying to cope with the loss of her father and her newfound destitution.  She may not have survived but for a partnership with a mountain woman, Ruby, her complete opposite in almost every way and her likeness in every other.

I grew up in this part of the country, with roots in the area that go back to well before the Civil War, and the language rings truer than any I have read elsewhere, whether written by Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy, or whoever.  And Frazier does it without resorting to phonetic spelling.  It really does read like it’s a story your grandfather is telling you by the fireplace after Sunday dinner.  One that was passed down to him from his grandfather.  There are so many sort of random details that just feel right.  It’s the sort of book I wanted to read at my desk with a notebook beside me but that I couldn’t bear to read so slowly the first time through.  The prose is beautiful by any measure.

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SF: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

I went to a panel at the WorldCon in San Antonio a few years back on Texas Pulp SF.  Apart from the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Texans were grossly underrepresented in the pulps.  The consensus was that they were writing speculative fiction, and good speculative fiction, but that it was getting published as folklore.  That struck close to home.  I sometimes say I didn’t discover speculative fiction until my mom forced The Hobbit on me, but that isn’t quite true.  Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I grew up with ghost stories.  Much like that Texas “folklore.”  The difference, of course, merely being one of perceptive.

You can imagine my interest then, when I discovered that an Appendix N and Weird Tales stalwart, Manly Wade Wellman, wrote an entire series of short stories very much rooted in the lore of my people.  About John.  At least that’s the only way his name is given in the stories.  He is more usually known as John the Balladeer or Silver John.  He may also be a parallel universe Johnny Cash.  Or maybe John the Baptist.  Or maybe both.

I picked up a copy of Paizo’s Hidden Worlds and Ancient Mysteries Planet Stories, The Complete Tales of Silver John, Who Fears the Devil?, presented by (and with an introduction from) Mike Resnick (2010).  Unfortunately, it is now out of print and offered at an obscene price every time lately I’ve checked on Amazon.  This is billed as a complete collection of the Silver John short stories, but Wellman also wrote five novels about John.  Haffner Press’ upcoming The Complete John the Balladeer.  The two-volume edition will contain all five novels and is available for pre-order now.

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Country Noir: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has given us a book that is right up the Hillbilly Highways alley gravel backroad.  It’s got granny women, moonshine, revenuers, moonshine runners, early stock car racing (with an appearance by Junior Johnson), end-of-the-road roadhouses and whorehouses, snake handlers, and an entire valley lost to the hillbillies so a dam could power the mills where the former farmers work for another man.  All nestled up in the mountains of northwest North Carolina where heading to civilization means Boone or Wilkesboro.

And all described by Brown with prose that is beautiful and powerful without being inaccessible or overly literary.  The prose reminds me a lot of another great country noir that I will be talking about in the nearish future, Bearskin by James McLaughlin; more so than, say, Daniel Woodrell or especially Cormac McCarthy.

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Country Noir: Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash

Burning Bright is another collection of short stories set in and around rural Western North Carolina by the master, Ron Rash.  I think I would rank it third among the collections I’ve read, behind Chemistry and Other Stories and then Nothing Gold Can Stay, but that’s sainting with faint criticism.  There is nothing quite so good as Blackberries in June or Speckled Trout, but there also isn’t a truly weak story.

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