In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.
Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.
There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks. Where the novel gains weight is in the brief flashbacks to Les’ and Becky’s pasts, and how these two damaged but resilient human beings were shaped by tragic events. At one point, Les remarks on what pushed them together, with a sense of dark 21st century wit, commenting on what their online dating profiles might’ve read: “Man who encouraged clinically depressed wife to kill herself seeks woman, traumatized by school shooting, who later lived with ecoterrorist bomber.” One wishes there was more of this peppered throughout the mostly dour, albeit intermittently gorgeously grim, proceedings.
There’s another brilliantly rendered episode involving a raid on a meth house that uncovers a (thankfully alive) baby sleeping in a microwave. Rash builds the suspense wonderfully (what awaits them in that house? is the thing in the microwave alive?) while making one feel as if they could smell, see, and feel the same things the police officers did as they entered the house. But it’s how he paints the emotional aftermath of the discovery on a young deputy that grips the reader’s heart.
Rash uses an interesting bookend device…poetically obtuse descriptions of ancient cave paintings left behind in French caves, hinting at what not only Les and Becky, but also the colorful stock side characters, wish to leave behind. The most famous of those well documented cave paintings is simply the stamp of a human hand…the classic case of less being more in art. It’s a singular, bold declarative statement to people who would look at it 30,000 years later: I was here. With Above the Waterfall, Rash continues to make his etchings of Appalachian life in the 20th and 21st centuries, staking his claim for generations to come as the Bard of Asheville.
Written by David H. Schleicher