Things done for love

Bob Moyer reviews the latest book from one of North Carolina’s finest novelists, Ron Rash.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CARETAKER. By Ron Rash. Doubleday. 252 pages. $28.

Ron Rash populates his North Carolina mountains with some of the meanest people you never want to meet. Serena, the woman featured in his best-selling novel, was remorseless in her meanness, relentless in revenge. In his latest book, he has come up with a new shade of mean — things done for love. The Hamptons, the aristocracy of Blowing Rock, N.C.,  in 1951, own the sawmill and the general store. Their son Jacob grows up in a carefully planned life — until he meets a girl of whom they don’t approve. He marries her, they disown him, she gets pregnant and he gets drafted into the Korean War.

Now at this point, the book takes on the quality of a 19th century novel by Thomas Hardy—an intercepted message, an unsigned note, flowers sent anonymously, money paid for silence. It’s a series of precarious propositions, which, if not handled carefully, could tumble down around the ears of the reader.

They don’t. Rash maneuvers through the plot with care, focusing on what the book is really about —The Caretaker. Blackburn Gant was apprenticed to the caretaker of a hilltop cemetery at the age of l6. His face disfigured, his leg disabled by polio, his parents thought it best he be removed from the public eye, and from public scorn. He spends his time now much more comfortable among the dead than among the living.

He is Jacob’s best friend from childhood, however. When Jacob is sent overseas, he asks Blackburn to care for Naomi, his wife. In the course of that relationship, Blackburn and Naomi grow closer. When the deceit effected by the Hamptons ensues, Blackburn is thrown into a confusing maelstrom far removed from the quiet of his former existence. As complications evolve, he grows in both depth and definition. He becomes the source of compassion, love and moral integrity demanded for a resolution suitable to everyone, especially the reader.

Rash handles dialogue and detail as deftly as ever, right down to the Borden Milk clock on the store wall. He has an ear for mountain voices, and an eye for mountain scenery almost unequalled in American literature. He doesn’t describe the setting, he takes you there: “From this (graveyard) hilltop, the whole valley could be seen, an unfurling patchwork of farms and woods giving way to mountains appearing endless as heaven itself was said to be. On a dreary day though, the Bible’s hopeful words sounded damp and gray, defeated. Nothing seemed certain but the grave’s dark door.”

Reviewers consistently call Rash an Appalachian writer. He isn’t. He’s a North Carolina writer, whose work makes the reader feel the way the book’s Jacob felt, when “…the teacher would point out continents and countries” on the globe, “…but always let her finger return to the anvil shape of North Carolina. And we are here, she’d said, right here.” No writer makes us feel here, in North Carolina, like Ron Rash.

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