Stuck in the past with Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight
William Faulkner once observed of the South that “the past is never dead, it is not even past.” In a region still irrevocably shaped by a history of injustice, war, prejudice, and bloodshed, it’s heartbreakingly easy to find evidence of this just by scrolling through social media or cycling through the news. Ron Rash uses Melville, not Faulkner’s oft-cited line, in the epigraph to set off his 2006 novel, The World Made Straight — but the past could easily be seen as the central catalyst of the story, if not its overarching consideration.
Travis, the teenaged, high-school-drop-out protagonist, lives in rural late-20th-century Madison County, North Carolina. Looking for a way to escape what is portrayed as a marginal existence and bleak prospects, Travis discovers marijuana plants in the woods while fishing in the French Broad River — and makes the choice to see them as a windfall.
This sets off a chain of events that will put him in contact with an unlikely mentor: a disgraced former schoolteacher turned drug dealer named Leonard. He also becomes entangled with a brutal local crime family headed up by a diabolical backwoods overlord who has the singing voice of an angel — one Carlton Toomey. Meanwhile a savage local massacre in 1863, dividing loyalties in the county to the present day, steers events behind the scenes.
Rash is the patriarch of a particular style of literary Appalachian Noir. He manages to imbue his desperate kids, addicts, drug dealers, petty criminals, and rural gangsters with plenty of humanity and renders them with a good deal of poetic flair. A distinguished scholar of Appalachian culture as well as a celebrated novelist, Rash illuminates an actual historical event, the Shelton Laurel Massacre of 1863, in which 13 accused Union sympathizers were shot to death outside Marshall. But instead of presenting it dramatically within the story — The World Made Straight is not a Civil War novel — Rash uses it as a kind of structural and thematic device on which his modern-day characters reflect and to which they react as historical ironies and contemporary desperation send them toward an inevitable violent conclusion.
As with any works that seem to grapple with the forces of fate and the predeterminations of history, there are moments where the strings become visible, as characters relentlessly trudge toward apparent doom like cursed players in a Greek tragedy. Suspense and dread are both critical ingredients in a good crime story, which The World Made Straight sometimes pretends at being, and at times, the dread overwhelms the suspense.
But Rash is concerned with far more than the plot mechanics of a simple crime tale, despite the book’s few moments of caper-like action. His interest lies in questions of the past — whether we can shake it, whether we are doomed to repeat it — and, in fact, whether a preoccupation with one’s own history may sabotage any hope of a brighter future.
Page Turners: The Main Library Book Club (sponsored by Henderson County Public Library) discusses The World Made Straight on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2-3pm, via ZOOM. Call 828-697-4725 to reserve a copy of the book and visit the library’s website link to register for the event: hendersonpl.libcal.com/event/7054292.