Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

And only man is vile…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.

Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.

The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.

Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.

It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.

Ron Rash

I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)

Amazon UK Link

37 thoughts on “Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

    • This is only my third Rash, and I’ve loved one, hated one and then quite liked this one with some reservations! I think he’s a great writer, but I always struggle when writers become too poetic in prose – it’s one of those fine lines, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • No, I think he’s better known in America than here, too. I love his writing when he sticks to a rather plainer prose style, but I always struggle when authors get too poetic in prose. It’s all subjective, though!


  1. This one sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, FictionFan. The setting sounds right for the story, and I like the fact that Rash is quite honest about the problems that beset that part of the US (and many others, too, sadly). On the other hand, I know just what you mean about too much trauma. In real life, I know it happens, and I wouldn’t want things sugar coated. At the same time, there’s only so much I feel I can read about it before it burdens me too much. And that pulls me out of a story. And about poetry? Sometimes it works; sometimes, well, I’m glad you did find things to like about this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always think that kind of drug-saturated society seems much bleaker in a rural setting somehow – it all seems to get so mixed in with poverty and deprivation, and seems so much more hopeless, because where do you escape to? The traumas were all believable but, as I’ve found with other books, it’s hard to believe that so many different raumas happen to the same small group of characters. That’s always when it begins to feel like a puppet show to me. But despite the over-poeticism of parts of this, I do admire his writing style in general, and thought he handled the noir aspects of the world-weary Sheriff very well.

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  2. Not for me. I’m just not up for that much misery in a novel. Gee, if I want to feel depressed, all I have to do is turn on the TV news … or read online news sites. Even if this book is relatively short, I can’t justify spending valuable time wallowing in misery. Thanks for reading it so I won’t have to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know exactly what you mean. My tolerance for total bleakness in novels is low too – I always want there to be at least the potential for hope. As you say, we are bombarded with misery each time we look at the news – that’s enough!

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  3. I’ll pass on this one. I know there are many who love his books, so I need to find the right one to read (after my disappointment with Serena). Speaking of, a dear friend of mine (with whom I often have similar taste in books) had Serena listed as one of his favorites from last year! We’ve agreed to disagree. 😐

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, so many people seem to have loved Serena – baffling, isn’t it? This was much better, despite the over-poeticism of some parts of it. But my favourite is still the first one I read many years ago now, The Cove, though I don’t remember much about it now except that I really enjoyed it!

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    • Yes, and I felt here he might be trying to give a picture of how a poet creates poetry, but sadly it didn’t work for me. I’m not sure where I draw the line on poetic prose, but he crossed it!


  4. Ironically I feel like stories where the whole cast of characters have backstories soaked in seven types of trauma actually minimise the impact of real trauma on real people. Everything just blurs into one atmosphere of misery, being used for drama rather than as a genuine and realistic look at how trauma affects people. As you say, it ends up just reminding the reader that it’s a fictional universe and not a real one!

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    • I completely agree! Trauma is only effective (in fiction) when it is contrasted against other people having less traumatic lives. If everyone is traumatised, then it begins to feel like a normal state of being. And that’s when I lose interest, and it begins to feel like a puppet show.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, my tolerance for bleakness is fairly low too – I really prefer there to be at least the potential for hope. But he is a very good writer, even if he does cross my poetry in prose line sometimes!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Another thorough and honest review from you. I’m intrigued more by Rash’s writing style(s) in this book than by the story itself — which speaks volumes. I’d rather be drawn to a book by its story. Hmmm. I’ll check it out because as a writer I’m curious, but it’s not at the top of my TBR. I always enjoy reading your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! The story in this one was certainly low-key. Probably the most important bit was the depiction of what can happen to a place when it is taken over by the illegal drugs industry, which he portrayed very convincingly, I thought. My tolerance for poetic language in prose is pretty low, so you may enjoy the writing in those sections more than I did. His world-weary Sheriff worked much better for me.


  6. I can see how this book would be depressing, especially when it comes to small towns ravaged by drugs, because as we both know, this is sadly the reality for many, especially those rural towns where much of the work is dependent on physical labour. I have get headaches or backaches occasionally, but I’m more than thankful for my desk job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, me too! I could never have done a physical job, although I suppose we might both have done if we’d been brought up to it. But I’d much rather have a desk job in a city! Rural life has never attracted me, even without the added problem of drugs.

      Liked by 1 person

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