Ron Rash : One Foot in Eden

February 3, 2009

posted & written by Caroline Picard

One Foot in Eden

Ron Rash

Picador, 2002

one-foot-in-edenLast Christmas I went down south, for the first time to South Carolina. There I stayed with a wonderful couple of artists who have, as artist so often do, carved out a remarkable life in the Greenville. Greenville is a small city with a burgeoning and quaint downtown, what was once dilapidated and run down with the sleepy charm of Southern history. Places like these benefit from the cyclical spread of rejuvenation-gentrification, if only because the historical buildings are preserved against any harder times to come.

Nevertheless, we got to talking a rambled through the subject of Faulkner, art communities, writers and families and the way so many small  towns run rich with familial legacy–legacies that are told and retold so often as to grow into myth. On that subject the Campbells lent me this book. They also taught me about rum cake.

“One Foot in Eden,” a debut novel (published in 2002) by Carolina native Ron Rash explores these legacies. Divided into five parts with varying perspectives, the story opens in the drought “dog days” of summer, when, a war veteran has gone missing. High Sheriff Alexander, descended from the Alexander clan, who for centuries owned and worked a plot of land in Jocassee visits an old friend and primary suspect, Billy Holcombe. Holcombe, for his part, is the first of his family line of sharecroppers to ever own any land. If it weren’t for the later shifts in perspective, the book could stand easily as a kind of murder mystery. Indeed, that’s what I thought I was in for after reading the opening lines, “There had been trouble in the upper part of the country at a honky-tonk called The Borderlins, and Bobby had come by the house because he didn’t want to go alone. I couldn’t blame him. One badge, especially a deputy’s badge, might not be enough.”

And yet, Rash pushes the plot beyond any specific genra; he’s comfortable to leave the sheriff with his troubles (a dysfunctional marriage, regret at having left the life of farming behind and the resulting estrangement of his immediate family), and delves farther into the motives and mishaps of love, desire and loss. Thus, the reader leaps from the mind and dialect of Sheriff Alexander, to that of AmyHolcombe, then suspect Billy Holcombe, to their son, Isaac Holcombe and at last the naive Deputy Bobby. In each point of view, the women occupy the most prominant place, revealing a depth and mystery that their male protagonists must support; even when those same women make compromising choices. There is witch who lives on the mountain, just as their is an unhappy wife in town, a mother prone to gossip and linking all of these an overarching address of male impotence–even in the face of death.

In order to negotiate the transforming effects of history, Rash weaves the constant and impersonal threat of the Carolina Power Company which plans to flood the valley for a dam. It seems fitting then that, perhaps the least developed character, Deputy Bobby, offers the most pristine observations, as he crosses the lake in a motor boat, in the final passages of the book, and looking down into the water sees the flooded houses, far below in the new lake bed. “I was getting near shore now so I eased the throttle. I looked at the bank and realized I was eyeballing the top ofLicklog Mountain. Down in the water I saw a road and I knew there was but one road it couldbe . Everything was so clear it was like looking through a window. I cut the engine and let the boat drift above the old river bed, the boat’s shadow dragging across the lake bottom like a net.

“This is the way God sees the world, I thought. Soon I saw the truck, still bogged down in the mud the way it had been six months ago, then a mailbox and finally the house and barn and shed me and the sheriff had searched so long ago.”

Using devices like time, legacy, folk lore, character, landscape and water, Rash provides a multifaceted narrative in which there is nodiscernable right or wrong. A tale in which the Deputy sees the world at eye-level first and later from above.



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