Above the Waterfall, the latest novel by Western North Carolina author Ron Rash, was released Tuesday to mostly sparkling reviews. The story is set in the Appalachian mountains and is part detective story, part love story, part Appalachian noir, a form that Rash has perfected.
This Wall Street Journal story does a great job of detailing Rash’s life and evolution as a writer:
Mr. Rash’s new novel arrives Tuesday, the result of three years of struggle. After trashing drafts, shifting focus and rewriting, the author landed on an interrupted love affair between Becky, a park ranger who survived a school shooting as a child, and Les, a retiring sheriff who blames himself for his depressed ex-wife’s near-suicide. The book, which alternates between traditional prose and a poetic voice, is set in the Appalachian Mountains that form the backdrop for most of Mr. Rash’s work.
Echoing the lapsarian beauty of William Faulkner and the spiritual isolation of Carson McCullers, Above the Waterfall demonstrates the prodigious talent of an author hailed as “a gorgeous, brutal writer” (Richard Price) and “one of the best American novelists of his day” (Janet Maslin, New York Times). Unforgettable and evocative, tragic and indelible, Above the Waterfall is a breathtaking achievement from a literary virtuoso.
This Kirkus Reviews take on Above the Waterfall is less loving:
There are six players in the poisoning case, so Les has his work cut out for him, and this storyline takes over the novel. An ordinary whodunit seems to have elbowed aside a more spacious novel about characters whose deep affinities with the natural world, and its interpreters, sustain them among unremitting man-made violence.
This Washington Post review of the novel is rather adoring:
Rash is an enormously gifted storyteller, who knows exactly how to keep the dramatic tension in his fiction as taut as a fly line with a lunker on the hook. “Above the Waterfall” — the title refers to the brook trouts’ pristine habitat — moves seamlessly from present to past and back to the present again as Rash reveals his characters and the mountain fastness that has shaped them.
Rash writes prose so beautifully that plot and character can come to seem like mere adornments, and certain touches—such the poems Les writes in his off-hours—feel like showcases. But there’s no denying Rash’s grasp of the North Carolina landscape and its reflection in the oft-tortured souls of its denizens, making this novel one of his most successful ventures into poetic humanism.
In the end, however, the narrative of “Above the Waterfall” is driven primarily by the question of who poisoned the trout stream, and why. Rash expertly navigates between rich character development, stunning descriptive language, and a twisting plot worthy of Raymond Chandler, working up to a conclusion that is somehow both haunting and reassuring. This short novel is deceptively complex, a fine summation of the gifts of one of our most skillful and morally serious writers at the height of his powers.