Ron Rash's new book of short stories, "Burning Bright" ($22.99; Ecco) is just in stores today, but from all indications, this new collection is already a hit.
In Monday's New York Times, book critic Janet Maslin lauds the book, much as she did "Serena," his 2008 novel that Maslin argues "established him as one of the best American novelists of his day."
On this subject, I'm with Maslin. Rash, a professor at Cullowhee's Western Carolina (which is lucky to have him, Maslin notes) offers up powerful, heartbreaking stories of people in Appalachia -- people down on their luck, hungry for love, desperate for money.
In "Dead Confederates," for instance, the narrator gets an offer from a black-hearted co-worker to go grave robbing in search of Confederate memorabilia, such as belt buckles and medals. As he considers it, he thinks about his hospitalized mother, and the bills growing by the day:
I think about how Daddy worked himself to death before he was sixty and Momma hanging on long enough to be taught that fifty years of working first light to bedtime can't get you enough ahead to afford an operation and a two-week stay in a hospital. I'm pondering where's the fair in that when there's men who do no more than hit a ball good or throw one through a hoop and they live in mansions and could buy themselves a hospital if they was to need one. I think of the big houses built up at Wolf Laurel by doctors and bankers from Charlotte and Raleigh. Second homes, they call them, though some cost a million dollars. You could argue they worked hard for those homes, but no harder than Momma and Daddy worked.
Another story, "The Ascent," paints a chilling picture of two meth addicts and their neglected son. That piece has already been chosen for "The Best American Short Stories 2010."
Though critically acclaimed, Rash, who grew up in Boiling Springs, is still unknown to many readers who would treasure his books -- if they knew about them. If you don't believe me, ask Janet Maslin.