“The Ascent” is from Ron Rash’s fourth story collection, Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010), winner of the Frank O’Connor Prize. His work has appeared in The O’Henry Prize Stories and Best American Stories, 2010, where “The Ascent” was anthologized. He is the author of four collections of poetry, four story collections, including Burning Bright, and several novels, including the just released, and much praised, Above The Waterfall. He lives in North Carolina.
The Guardian (UK) said this about the collection: Ron Rash’s stories, set in the Appalachian mountains, are portraits of rural desperation, of lives blighted by poverty, drugs and grief. Though the world they depict is a grim one, the stories themselves are not unremittingly bleak. A Rash leitmotif is the sudden small moment of uplift – a character acting with unforeseen humanity, a bully finding himself on the receiving end. Good, when it occurs in these stories, is all the more satisfying for being so hard won.
A high point is “Dead Confederates,” a comically macabre account of a plan to loot ornaments from the graves of Confederate soldiers. The story hinges on the moral difference between the narrator, who goes along with the scheme in the hope of obtaining the funds to foot his mother’s medical bills, and his partner, who is motivated by simple greed. The distinction is a key one and points to a philosophy articulated elsewhere in the collection – that good ends may justify bad acts.
Many stories in the collection have a ferocious tenderness at their core. Rash writes well about the bonds between children and parents and, in particular, the pain that ensues when they are severed or corrupted. A heartbreaking example is “The Ascent,” about a boy’s attempts to come to the aid of his crystal meth-addicted parents, who respond by exploiting his innocence. Rash’s adult characters, no less than his child ones, tend to find themselves in positions of extreme vulnerability. The difference is that they at least have a chance of fighting back.