Authors challenge their characters in different ways

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY

By Ron Rash

Ecco, $24.99

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE

By Karen Russell

Knopf, $24.95

Rash’s writing is rooted in a particular place: Southern Appalachia. The culture of the North Carolina hills and adjacent areas informs all his writing. Nothing Gold Can Stay, a collection of 14 stories, is no exception.

In “The Trusty,” a prisoner on a North Carolina chain gang plots his escape. “The sun was higher now, angled in over the mountaintops, and the new well bucket winked silver as it swayed. Sinker lifted his gaze to the cloudless sky. It would be another hot, dry, miserable day and he’d be out in it. At quitting time, he’d go back and wash up with water dingy enough to clog a strainer, eat what would gag a hog, then at nine o’clock set his head on a grimy pillow. Three and a half more years. Sinker studied the ridgeline, found the gap that would lead to Asheville.”

Yet when Sinker decides to enlist a naive young mountain wife as an accomplice to his escape, it is Sinker who learns that not everything is what it seems.

Rash is adept at the dénouement, often using a sudden twist ending that can be gimmicky or be satisfying, depending on how well it is done. In the title story, a couple of drug addicts decide to rob an old man to fund their latest binge. The story has an unusual structure in that some of the exposition follows the twist. Using their loot from the robbery, they buy a bottle of pills from a dealer and then stop in a country store. “Get us some beer to wash these down with and we’ll be riding the magic carpet all the way to Asheville,” one of them observes. The visit to the store, however, proves a revelation to one of the druggies.

“Where the Map Ends” is a Civil War tale about escaped slaves and the peculiar feelings about slavery in the mountain region. Two escaped slaves make it to a remote mountain farm where a rope hanging from a beam in the barn becomes the focus of the story of revenge. In “A Servant of History,” a songcatcher finds out memories stretch back generations in the mountains. The British musicologist is touring the mountains recording Appalachian ballads that originated in the British Isles when he finds an old woman who remembers not only a song but the ancient grudge it represents.

“The Magic Bus” exploits the sense of isolation young people in the mountains feel. The main character, a young girl, is so thirsty for knowledge of the outside world that she memorizes the shapes and colors of license plates from different states. “A few were tricky, especially North Carolina and Tennessee, which were white with black letters and numbers, but she could tell them apart.” When a VW bus overheats on the highway near the farm where the girl lives, she encounters outsiders and learns that not everything about them is worth learning. “The Dowry”, another Civil War era tale about divided loyalties in the region, is probably the best story featuring a severed limb since Peter Taylor’s “The Hand of Emmagene.”

The most moving tale is the closing story, “Three a.m. and the Stars Were Out,” told in the voice of a small town veterinarian, Carson, who is called out on a chilly night to tend a cow having a difficult time delivering a calf. Rash read this short story aloud in its entirety at the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival, and it was a sage choice. The story of the veterinarian’s life slowly unfolds as he negotiates the twisting roads to the farm and the dark barn where he will ensue to bring the calf into the world alive. “‘There’s a wonder to it yet,’ Darnell said, and Carson didn’t disagree.” Rash has a way of finding that wonder hidden in the ordinary and shining a light on it in his stories.

Quirky might be the most accurate description of Russell’s work, but her odd stories have a strange otherness and mysticism that draws in the reader. Some of these eight stories have a strange sweetness, like the title story which is about two old vampires (are there any other kind?) who live in a lemon grove in Italy. It’s told in the voice of the man, Clyde, who lives with his mate, Magreb.

“Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno’s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.” Clyde and Magreb are not vampires who drink blood or hide from the sun or sleep in coffins. Clyde did that when he first became a vampire, but then he met Magreb who told him none of that was necessary, all of it was just myth. They do have an unbearable thirst — “It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.”

Magreb still transforms into a bat and flies around. Clyde no longer has that ability. He’s tired of his life, tired of being a vampire. There’s no cure, he knows, and no death. Life, or undeath, has given them lemons.

The main characters in “Reeling for Empire” are Japanese girls whose families sell them into servitude at a silk factory where, after being fed a unique kind of tea, they are transformed into immense white worms who still retain human characteristics but also can spin very fine strands of high quality silk from their distorted bodies. The story is narrated by a girl named Kitsune. “Some of the older workers’ faces are already quite covered with coarse white fur, but my face and thighs stayed smooth for twenty days. In fact I’ve only begun to grow the white hair on my belly.”

“The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” reminds of the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, but the gulls are not attacking humans. They seem to be bearing messages for the desperate teenager Nal, whose life is as off track as his misshapen, blue-dyed haircut his cousin gave him. His brother, Samson, gets the girls and is a better athlete, but Nal is smart if dorky. There is a romantic triangle of sorts and all of it plays out against the messages the gulls give Nal. “Proving Up” is a prairie horror story filled with weird Nebraska weather and people made near-crazy by living in sod houses. They all hope to “prove up” and gain deeds to their land. To that end, they must have a house with a glass window. The Zengers have such a window and loan it to other families when the “Inspector” comes around to “prove up” their claims.

“The Barn at the End of Our Term” is a little wacky, with dead presidents reincarnated as horses on a thoroughbred farm. It’s told in the voice of Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president of the United States.

“There are twenty-two stalls in the Barn. Eleven of the stabled horses are, as far as Rutherford can ascertain, former presidents of the United States of America. The other stalls are occupied by regular horses, who give the presidents suspicious, sidelong looks. Rutherford B. Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare. Rutherford hasn’t made many inroads with these regular horses. The Clydesdales are cliquish and pink-gummed, and the palominos are inbred buffoons.”

“The New Veterans” calls to mind Ray Bradbury’s famous collection, The Illustrated Man. In Russell’s story, a veteran back from Iraq has a scene tattooed on his back: a rendering of the day his convoy was attacked and one of his friends was killed by a roadside bomb. Sgt. Zeiger tells his story to his massage therapist, Beverly, who sees the events unfold on the tattoo as she massages his back. She finds she can change details of the attack with skillful massage techniques and that sets off a conflict of conscience.

Russell’s quirkiness doesn’t mask her ability. Last year she wrote a book, Swamplandia!, that received critical acclaim and spent some time on best-seller lists. There was a strong strain of mysticism in that book as well as this one.

Russell’s characters face a world where events do not always obey the laws of logic. How they cope with their shifting perceptions is always the complication.