The title of this short story collection, NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY, immediately evokes the Robert Frost poem of the same name. It is hard to refrain from speculating that author Ron Rash intended the reader to compare the two works when he chose that title, although their subject matter and form are disparate. Having always taken the poem to be an ode to the ephemerality of individual existence, I was at first confused by Rash’s choice to explore this theme through such a brutal and grunting world. As I read deeper into the collection, however, I realized that the stories’ magic comes from Rash’s repeated and often viscerally expressed insistence that the world he portrays is an incredibly effective vessel to convey the fleetingness, and often the futility, of life.
Rash's characters are hardened by misfortune. The risks that surround them are often addressed as purely physical concerns, leaving the metaphysical to writhe just below the action’s surface. The harm that befalls the characters (as well as the narrow misses) would send people unfamiliar with such rural surroundings running for the hills --- or, more likely, for the city. However, the characters deal with the inherent brutality of their lives casually, though many face incredible violence.
"[T]he stories’ magic comes from Rash’s repeated and often viscerally expressed insistence that the world he portrays is an incredibly effective vessel to convey the fleetingness, and often the futility, of life."
The book appears to hail back to the Southern Gothic genre, though it varies significantly in style from greats such as Carson McCullers and William Faulkner. There is a folksy quality in Rash’s writing, potentially a result of the stories being written so much later than the historic surroundings in which the majority of them take place. There is also something comedic that can prove distracting in the quaintness of certain stories, such as "A Servant of History," in which a British anthropologist is maimed by Americans who prove a good deal more savage than he expects. "The Dowry," written about the broken period following the civil war, reads so much like a retelling of an already familiar story that its charm falls somehow flat. It provides the reader with pleasure, and there is satisfaction in the great reveal, but it does not capture the relentless oppressiveness of every human’s mundane and sublime reality.
Somehow the stories set closer to the present-day shed this pretension and feel more sincere. There is little that is picturesque in the title story, in which two young men who haven't traveled as far from their origins as they once expected steal a dead man's reminder of the wrongs he committed in his youth. The knowledge that this bounty will pay for further dissipation is obviously ironic to the reader. And though not made explicit, it seems as though the narrator of the story sees the irony as well, even as he slips into a drugged haze that rescues him only briefly from the confines of his life. Nor is it possible to make light of a young man’s decision to throw away his hard earned ticket out of a dead town to be with his meth-head ex-girlfriend.
These are the choices people make. Whether driven by poverty or ambition, opportunity or bitterness, there are infinite circumstances in which things just don’t turn out. Not necessarily in a particularly dramatic way, just in a way that drains life slowly, until death is simply the next event rather than an untimely jolt. Even when people get away with getting what they want, such as in "Cherokee," when a husband and wife end up winning the money to save their car, there is no doubt that this is just a brief respite. This feeling of futility reaches a climax in the collection’s finale, "Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out," about two Korean War vets who never expected to live the lives they did in fact attain. But their success is still incapable of answering the question Rash’s stories leave ringing in our ears: Even when you reach beyond your dreams, what that is lasting has been achieved?
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on March 1, 2013