“The Ascent,” Ron Rash, The Best American Short Stories 2010Posted: June 13, 2011
I’m a new fan of Ron Rash, whose story, “The Trusty,” appeared in the May 23 New Yorker and was a great period piece with a twist. He’s got a voice that’s been distilled on the ridges of North Carolina, rhododendrons and all. His stories are loaded with quiet suspense.
“The Ascent” is about a boy in the fifth grade who finds a crashed airplane in the Smokies that everyone is looking for. He’s out for a snowy walk away from his home on the first day of Christmas break — “better to be outside on a cold day than in the house where everything, the rickety chairs and sagging couch, the gaps where the TV and microwave had been, felt sad.”
It’s a very sad story. Like “The Trusty,” the story ends with the implication of the main character’s imminent death, despite his wholesome intentions.
Rash keeps raising the stakes. He starts the story off with that little adventure in the woods, the boy fighting off imaginary bears and talking to a girl from school (Lyndee Starnes — what a great name) he imagines is with him. Then the crashed plane with the dead and frozen couple inside, and Jared sitting in the backseat, soaking in the silence. But the story really wrenches into drama territory when he opens the door to his own home and the narrator gives us the disorienting list of details that Jared is seeing. Now we get why there are gaps where the TV and microwave used to be, as the narrator told us in the first paragraph.
When Jared opened the door, the small red glass pipe was on the coffee table, an empty baggie beside it. His father kneeled before the fireplace, meticulously arranging and rearranging kindling around an oak log. A dozen crushed beer cans lay amid the kindling, balanced on the log itself three red and white fishing bobbers. His mother sat on the couch, her eyes glazed, as she told Jared’s father how to arrange the cans. In her lap lay a roll of tinfoil she was cutting into foot-long strips.
“Look what we’re making,” she said, smiling at Jared. “It’s going to be our Christmas tree.”
Rash makes the story work by making his sentences as plain as milk and cereal (which is what Jared eats in the story, incidentally). His mother’s eyes are simply “glazed,” for example. The narrator has very little psychic distance from Jared, but the tone is one of numbness, and reporting almost, which allows the actions of the story to take on a banal veneer.
There’s hardly a spare word. I like Rash’s subtlety. Jared’s parents busy themselves with all that junk, literally kneeling before it, even as their son returns from his Smokies walk literally with a gold ring. Jared goes back to the plane twice, and spends about as much time with the dead, frozen couple as he does with his parents. I love the symmetry between his parents shivering in the house because they’re too high to get more firewood and the couple in the downed plane, already frozen stiff.
Here’s Rash’s contributor’s note on “The Ascent”:
In 2004 I read a short local newspaper article about a small plane that had crashed in the North Carolina mountains. The plane had not been found for six years, and then only by accident. A bear hunter had stumbled upon it. I clipped out the article and placed it in a pencil and spare change container on my bureau. Years passed and the clipping yellowed, but I’d see it often, tuck it back into the container after taking out coins or a pencil. I knew a story was in that article. I just didn’t know whose story it was. When I finally realized the story centered on a child discovering the plane, the rest came quickly.
Ron Rash is the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, which is in Cullowhee, North Carolina (pretty damn close to the Smokies and the Appalachian Trail). He’s working on a novel called The Cove, apparently. He was born in 1953, got his bachelor’s at Gardner-Webb University and his MA in creative writing at Clemson. Here is his Amazon page. He has published three books of poetry (Among the Believers, 2000; Eureka Mill, 2001; Raising the Dead, 2002), four novels (Serena, 2008; Saints at the River, 2004; One Foot in Eden, 2002; The World Made Straight, 2006), and four books of short stories (The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina, 1994; Casualties, 2000; Chemistry and Other Stories, 2007; Burning Bright, 2010 (which contains “The Ascent”)).
“The Ascent” originally appeared in Tin House #39, Spring 2009.