Review of Ron Rash’s ‘Above the Waterfall’
The Serena author’s new novel set in Appalachia captures the torturous nature of the human condition.
Ron Rash’s new novel, Above the Waterfall, tells the story of Les, the morally ambiguous sheriff of an Appalachian North Carolina town with both distinct beauty in nature and decay brought about by the ravages of crystal meth. With his retirement imminent, Les is forced to deal with a crime that brings to the surface many of the town’s demons and secrets — and many of his own, too.
The novel also explores Becky Shytle, a park ranger who is haunted by the trauma of a school shooting and a relationship with an eco-terrorist. She must now reconcile with the fact that her closest friend, Gerald Blackwelder, has been accused of poisoning a stream within the private resort of Harold Tucker, a prominent local businessman. This case forces Les and Becky to question the ways in which they perceive others and look beyond only what they want to see. After the drama of the poisoned stream shakes out, they both gain insight into what others, even those closest to them, are capable of.
Rash masterfully captures a sense of place throughout the novel. The 2008 recession, the private ownership of a nature resort and the prominence of meth addiction all play important roles in the story — and seem to have irrevocably changed this Appalachian town. Gerald Blackwelder is affected most significantly, as he is representative of the antiquated archetype of the mountain man of generations past. Les, the perceived primary protagonist of the novel, connects Gerald to the landscape of Appalachia, comparing it to a sheep’s connection to a pasture.
If the owner sold his flock, he had to sell his entire pasture as well, because, after so many generations, the sheep would be too rooted in that place to survive elsewhere. Little different for men like Gerald.” Chapter Five
Les goes on to link this phenomenon to an entire generation of Appalachian men and women who have sold their land and moved into nursing homes or with their children. Les notes that most of these people die within six months, citing their severed connection with their land as the cause of death.
Contributing to this perceived problem is the Locust Creek Resort run by Harold Tucker, whose family transformed its farm into a tourist destination largely for fishing. Adjacent to the resort is Locust Creek State Park, a state-owned entity run by Becky, who, along with Les, narrates many chapters in the first person. The existence of these two entities creates a tension between private enterprise and the publicly administered land. This tension is exacerbated by the poisoning of the stream within Tucker’s Locust Creek Resort, which is subsequently blamed on Gerald Blackwelder, who had often poached fish from the private waters. Gerald, however, claims that he has been framed. Complicating this narrative is Becky’s close relationship with Gerald, Les’s sometimes romantic interactions with Becky and Les’s relationship with C.J. Grant, who saved his arm from a machinery accident when they were teenagers, but now works for Tucker.
No one in the novel wants to believe those they love, or are close to, are capable of reprehensible behavior. As the intrigue of the novel unfolds, and the case is solved, perceptions are shattered and relationships change. The one common thread between the characters seems to be that the world around them is crumbling, or at least decaying.
Les is lonely like an Edward Hopper painting and, upon his retirement, he must reconcile with his divorce from his suicidal wife, his morally ambiguous behavior as sheriff and how he is going to fill the new void of free time. Les seems to also believe that the justice system, or perhaps the abstract concept of justice, is crumbling.
Justice. You’d think a lawman would have some faith in that word, but in thirty years I’d seen too little of it.” – Chapter Eight
Becky must continue to deal with the school shooting trauma of her youth and consider those she has chosen to associate herself with, including an eco-terrorist, and Gerald, who is accused of poisoning the stream, along with burning down his son’s house. Becky takes refuge in nature, but that also seems to be under attack. “Nature brought out the best in humans, Becky said, but here, as deep into nature as you could get in this country, I saw just the opposite,” Les says as he walks in the woods and finds a patch littered with lighters and crystal meth paraphernalia.
Decay is all around in this novel, represented in those who use crystal meth, but also in the personal and professional lives of the characters — who seem to want to believe in some sort of ability to be reborn. Ultimately, they don’t achieve this and instead merely try to confirm that they are alive and present in a place, as most humans have in the past, all the way to the ancient human cave paintings in places like Lascaux.
Above the Waterfall’s structure is compelling. Rash uses both Les and Becky as first person narrators. Each chapter is narrated by one of them, and much of the novel alternates between the two. These two perspectives shed light onto the similarities and differences in perceptions between two distinct people in the same place. Les largely internalizes his trauma, while Becky seeks healing in nature. While Les’s prose is airy and almost distant, Becky’s is filled with metaphor and symbolism. These two varying styles work to balance the novel, as Rash weaves these two narrators together like a tapestry.
Above the Waterfall is astonishing in its ability to capture Appalachian North Carolina and the often torturous nature of the human condition. The book can be read as a mystery — or something much more.