Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Burning Bright

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

The fashion in literature lately seems to be focused on the art of performing acrobatics with language at the expense of the plot. Not that there is anything wrong with that, any time language isn't outright brutalized by pointless abbreviations and boring neologisms is great. Sometimes, though, it's nice to just read a story that evokes emotions and tells a story, plainly, compellingly. Ron Rash's collection Burning Bright is full of just those kinds of stories. Each one succinct and deceptively simple. Rash is one of those writers everyone thinks they can write like, until they try.

Rash's stories span decades, from the Civil War to the present day. Each story is vivid and believable, a difficult feat when writing about a time one has never experienced. Rash himself said at a book signing recently that although he sometimes writes historical fiction, he hopes his stories resonate with people today. He succeeds at this by imbuing his characters with traits easily recognized i people today. A man living during the Depression feels sadness at his estranged children and hopelessness with the state of the world. A woman waiting for her husband to return from fighting during the Civil War uses her wiles to protect her family. A pawn shop owner knows that majority of items he buys are stolen and sold to him for drug money but still makes the sales, even to his own nephew. These people struggle with themselves, with their families, with the world.

Two standout stories are the opening story, "Hard Times," and "The Ascent." Both deal with children, but avoid sentimentality. The reader is allowed to feel for the children, but the prose doesn't dwell on all of the reason to pity them. In "Hard Times," a Depression-era farmer wonders how much worse life could really be outside of his small farming community. He personally knows a family up the road from him starving, the father's pride preventing them from taking any help. The descriptions in the story are visceral, neck hairs stand at attention, despite Rash's spare language. The little boy in "The Ascent" lives in his imagination, envisioning himself as a hero. His parents are meth addicts (the drug features in a couple of Rash's stories), and although they do try in their way to care for him, they fail miserably. The story is made for treacle, but Rash avoids it. The little boy doesn't pity himself and neither does the narrator.

Every collection has a weak story or two, but here, the weakest story only seems so because it's included with so much strength. The collection is short and over much too soon, but the stories resonate long afterwards.

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