Ron Rash has captured the essence of small-town Appalachia in his work, creating characters that resonate clearly in memorable prose that always leaves me wanting more, people so clearly etched that they assimilate the landscape that surrounds them. Set in both 1969 and their more mature years, two brothers--one
16, the other 21--share halcyon days with a stranger: the reckless Ligeia, a girl sent from Daytona, Florida, to summer with her religious aunt and uncle in Sylva, North Carolina, in hopes that she may stay out of trouble.
For the younger boy, Eugene, it is a time of awakening, an opportunity to explore the physical and emotional parameters of an involvement with a girl who fancies herself wild, like a hippie--certainly more experienced than any girls he associates with in North Carolina. Until now, Eugene has followed his brotherís lead in making decisions, Bill assuming the more responsible role since the death of their father years before in a hunting accident. Both boys are being strictly raised by their grandfather, Sylvaís only General Practitioner, who
provides shelter and education, firmly guiding Bill on a path to becoming a surgeon. Though not happy under the rigid thumb of her father-in-law, the boysí mother accepts the circumstances, realizing that is the only way they will have access to the quality education money can provide.
Billís age and natural acceptance of responsibility afford him a more mature perspective of the future and the price of the older manís decision to care for the fatherless family. While he hopes for medical school and a future as a surgeon, Bill chafes under the rigid rules imposed upon the household by Grandfather Matney. Eugene, the sensitive son who dreams of becoming a writer, resists Billís inclination toward obedience regardless of its logic, yearning to embrace the youthful exuberance of his age and sample the freedom Ligeia flaunts. Their accidental sighting of the nude girl downstream of the fishing hole they enjoy on Sundays becomes a regular rendezvous. With friendly overtures, Ligeia seduces each in turn, coaxing the brothers to purchase liquor and purloin drugs from their grandfatherís office when they clean on Saturdays. Bill is the first to balk at this dangerous activity, Eugene growing bold in the throes of newfound masculinity.
It is a critical summer for the two young men, a time where fraternal closeness is forfeit to the predictable disharmony of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eugene exults in the heady bliss of sexual experience with an exotic, free-spirited young woman who chooses him over the more masculine Bill. During this time, boundaries are breached, secrets sealed in silence,
and tragedy buried under the weight of time as the brothers take separate paths. Bill becomes a gifted surgeon, a strong social conscience driving him to share the gift he has achieved with those in need. Eugene loses his way, obsessed with the unresolved past, his squandered dreams but a sad memory and a source of discontent. Their grandfather and mother deceased, Bill and Eugene
are mostly estranged. The secret festers between them until circumstances drive that distant rancor to the surface, two men in their sixties sharing memories of that long-ago summer.
Though I usually find Rashís characters memorable and deeply-etched, the character of Eugene is so flawed, so without insight and blinded by foolish arrogance, that the book loses its substance. There is no balance to the development of these two brothers, Eugene mired in resentment and self-destruction, hating the brother who bore the burden of their painful youth and moral lapses, a contrast in courage and self-obsession that lacks the breadth of humanity I have come to expect from this author. The prose is there, but not the heart.