Above the Waterfall
Ron Rash
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Buy *Above the Waterfall* by Ron Rashonline

Above the Waterfall
Ron Rash
272 pages
July 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Above the Waterfall.

In Above the Waterfall, Rash unfolds a brutal, lyrical tale of a disgraced senior, a retiring county sheriff, and a damaged reclusive forest ranger who spends her days working amidst the bucolic surrounds of Locust Creek Park situated on the edge of the Appalachian mountains. Here in this isolated community--with its age-old combination of revenge and retribution--the barriers between corporate business, the protection of the environment, and old-time respectability are tested, as well as the more venal aspects of meth addiction.

Never one to forget his duty as an officer of the law, county sheriff Les is looking forward to retirement in about three weeks. Life for Les now is all about tying up some loose ends and getting the paperwork done, and also making sure his young deputy, Jarvis Crow is okay as his replacement. As Les and Jarvis prepare to raid a makeshift meth lab on the outskirts of Locust Creek, Les finally confronts addict William Darby. Halfway whittled to bone and with eyes “the color of dirty motor oil,” Darby’s addiction could put him away for good. Darby and his girlfriend will do anything for their next hit. Meanwhile, Les learns pretty early on from his old school buddy, C.J. Grant, that Darby’s elderly uncle Gerald Blackwelder has been caught poaching fish on Harold Tucker’s Locust Resort property, just above the Creek’s waterfall.

Les extracts a promise from Gerald that he’ll stay away from the Creek even as Gerald continues to curse and raise hell. Tucker is adamant that Gerald should be held accountable, ordering Les to arrest him. When oil is poured into the river above the waterfall, killing a large number of Locust Creek’s speckled trout population, the blame is squarely laid upon Gerald. Clearly he is someone who has a grudge against Tucker, who remains a thorn in the side of the town. He throws his weight around, collecting videos of Gerald at the Creek and threatening to fire C.J if he doesn’t do something to keep the old man from trespassing on his land.

With the economy driving people to the edge, what follows is less a series of revelations and recriminations than a careful process of discovery and subtle unease. The consummate mediator, Les is careful with his accusations while Gerald fires back in his defense, and the constant jockeying can be felt in every increasingly tense moment of their dynamic. Solace for both Les and Gerald comes in the form of lovely Becky Shytle, the new superintendent of Locust Creek Park. As reclusive Becky spends her days showing schoolchildren the natural beauty of the park, her apparent stoicism hides a deeper world of broken promises and bitter disappointments. Gerald is Becky’s oldest friend, and in her eyes he can do little wrong--even when Les cautions her that Gerald isn’t “the loveable old man that she thinks he is.” As Becky frantically defends Gerald--first against the trespassing accusation, and then against the oil spill--she remains haunted by an elementary school shooting on Emory, Virginia, in 1984 and the violent, sudden death of Richard, her eco-terrorist boyfriend.

Exactly what happened to Richard is important, but not nearly as significant as the shadow of distrust it had cast over their relationship. Becky now spends her time questioning much of what she thought she knew. While Becky finds solace in the natural beauty around her, fanatically writing images in her notebook of the loop trails and the foxgloves past bloom, the images “like a Van Gogh painting,” she remains plagued by memories of the days and months after that terrible morning. Occasionally in thrall to Becky, Les confides in her about his life with ex-wife Sarah, how they were once happy and in love and had vowed to stay so for the rest of our lives. For both Betsy and Les, there are just too many echoes of the past.

In a county where everyone is connected ("if not by blood then in some other way”), where jobs and opportunity are often hard to come by, the accusations against Gerald interrupt the sacred accord of the village. Gerald gravitates between indignation and compliance, while Tucker, C.J., and drug-addled William Darby hide behind the chill of fear and indignation, a resentment that slowly and carefully simmers inside of all of them. For his part, Les begins to side with Becky, convinced in the end that Gerald was not responsible for the spill.

Curiously devoid of fireworks, this rather low-key novel could have easily slid into melodrama and parody if not for Rash's unselfconscious and unobtrusive sense of poetry. As memory cascades through the novel like the rough and tumble waters of Locust Creek, human greed mixes with honesty and betrayal in a setting where the sacred bonds of family are tested to the limit. The characters suffer and strive to move out of the darkness and back into the light, becoming so much more than the total sum of Rash’s beautifully lush North Carolina landscapes.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2015

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