Treasure in the woods

Readers of Xpress might remember a recent Cohencidents cartoon that ran in these pages wherein a frustrated man sits at wit’s end in front of a laptop computer and confesses to his puzzled daughter that he can’t explain “why it takes such a long time to write a short story.”

Any scribe who has ever tried their hand at the genre can offer an answer, although it might ramble on longer than a good short story. For Ron Rash, the answer (though not the process) is simple: “I tell my students that what makes a short story so difficult to write is that you have to have the best of a novel and the best of poetry in it. It has to do a lot of things well to work.”

And Rash should know a thing or two about crafting good short fiction — the Western Carolina University professor has recently joined the ranks of authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joyce Carol Oates by being named a recipient of the O. Henry Prize. Described by the Atlantic Monthly as ” … the nation’s most prestigious award for short fiction,” the O. Henry Prize is awarded annually and recognizes the very best short stories published in North America. (Trivia bit for those newly moved to Asheville: O. Henry himself is buried in Montford’s Riverside Cemetery.)

Rash’s winning story, “Speckle Trout,” was first published in the Spring 2003 edition of The Kenyon Review. It is included with 19 other stories — selected from more than 1,000 entries submitted by magazine editors — in this year’s edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories (Anchor Books, 2005).

The editor of this year’s O. Henry collection, award-winning novelist Laura Furman, notes in her introduction that the 20 collected short stories ” … are all preoccupied with notions of community. The relationship between individual and society is usually presented as a struggle …”

And so we meet Lanny, Rash’s protagonist in “Speckle Trout,” a boy on the verge of manhood — and struggling with devils within and without while he tries to break free from his dull Madison County existence. For Rash, setting the story in the hidden streams, dark forests and even darker trailer parks of Western North Carolina is a natural fit: The author is a Boiling Springs native with a good deal of family in Buncombe County.

We first meet Lanny on a long trek into the woods in pursuit of the elusive fish of the title. He finds them — and a whole lot more — but his blinding desire to be an independent man clouds his judgement. Toss in a bumper crop of Madison County’s other tobacco, an ignored “No Trespassing” sign and some characters intent on enforcing that warning and you’ve got all the makings of an Appalachian bildungsroman. And Rash manages to tell Lanny’s tale with language that is simple, yet stunning; beautiful, yet hard-edged — mirroring the terrain and culture he so clearly loves.

Rash recently told Xpress that his model for Lanny was ” … the type of smart, but immature, teenager that I’ve seen in my life. The type of male teenager with a skewed view of what masculinity is. That’s part of his problem — he’s trying to prove himself. He’s not stupid, just reckless with his life.” The type of frustrated teen that many of us have encountered bagging groceries at what Rash in his story calls the local “Pay-Lo.”

That strong Appalachian voice goes beyond his fiction, too. Rash is the John and Dorothy Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture at WCU. In that role, he says he is trying to “bring more visibility to Appalachian culture [by] working with the school’s Mountain Heritage Center — co-sponsoring a series of events like having [appearances by] musicians, writers, a Cherokee storyteller [and] environmentalists talking about issues in the region. Hopefully to produce a sense of pride of what this culture has produced.”

Well, one thing’s for sure: We can now say it’s produced Ron Rash. .

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