Above the Waterfall
by Ron Rash
Pages: 253 pages
Reviewed by: Kathleen Brewin Lewis
The Poetry of Petrichor
A year or two ago, on Facebook of all places, I ran across a word I’d never heard before: petrichor. Its definition moved me: the good scent that accompanies the first rain after a long dry spell. I had such a crush on this word that I wrote and published a poem about it and occasionally recite it at my readings. But it’s not the sort of term you see or use on a regular basis. I hadn’t encountered petrichor again—until I read Ron Rash’s rich novel, Above the Waterfall. You might say that Rash “had me at petrichor.”
Above the Waterfall is Rash’s sixth novel, a multi-layered book that showcases his considerable skills as storyteller, poet, naturalist, and chronicler of Appalachian life. (He has also published six short story collections and five volumes of poetry.) The story is told from two alternating points of view: that of the pragmatic sheriff, Les, who at 51, is just a few weeks away from an early retirement made possible by years of payoffs from local pot growers, and that of the socially-awkward, poetic park superintendent, Becky. Both characters have been damaged by tragic events in their pasts, Becky even more so than Les. “I’m not autistic,” Becky tells Les, “I just spent a lot of my life trying to be.” They care for and are attracted to each other, but can’t seem to overcome their accustomed loneliness and years of pain to become a couple.
Through Les’ voice, Rash shows the reader his talent as a storyteller; with Becky’s voice, he evinces his gifts as a poet. “As evening’s last light recedes, a silver birch glows like a tuning fork struck,” Rash has her recount. And this: “Honeysuckle vines twine green cords, white flowers attached like Christmas lights.” So it’s no surprise that petrichor would appear in one of Becky’s chapters. “Petrichor,” she writes in her naturalist’s notebook, “the smell of first raindrops on long-dry land.” Mmm.
At the center of Les and Becky’s shared story is Gerald Blackwelder, an elderly, embittered man with a heart condition, who has lived alone for years after losing his wife and son, the latter in the Iraq war. Becky checks up on him regularly and solicitously, as if he were one of her beloved grandparents. Gerald’s land adjoins a fancy new fishing and golf resort. Gerald occasionally cuts through the resort to visit a place he cherishes, the still, clear waters above the waterfall, where the native speckled trout thrive.
After the resort owner complains that Gerald is scaring the visitors to his resort and poaching fish, and orders him to stay off the land, the trout below the waterfall are poisoned. Gerald is suspected of the deed. Les is pressured by the developer and his public relations director, childhood friend C.J., to arrest him, and by Becky to leave Gerald alone. Les’ final task before retiring becomes solving the mystery of who-actually-done-it—and why.
Because Above the Waterfall is written by Ron Rash, the reader can expect to find bleak depictions of the devastation that crystal methamphetamine is causing in Appalachia; Rash writes consistently of the horrible scourge of the drug on the region. He also evinces a deep appreciation for the natural world in his work. Becky may be the naturalist and poet, but Les is similarly appreciative of the flora and fauna of his native land. When he drives into the national forest to look for evidence of meth production at one of the campsites, he can’t help but notice the rare lavender wildflower, Blazing Star, blooming amid the empty Sudafed packets, the syringes, the used-up Bic lighters, and the plastic Mountain Dew bottles. He takes the time to spot five more of the endangered plants.
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the paintings of Edward Hopper figure into the novel to highlight Rash’s themes of spirituality in the natural world and a sense of isolation in the modern world. The cave art in Lascaux makes an appearance as well. But it is Becky’s (Rash’s) poetry that sets this novel apart: “If not today then soon, gray clouds will gather. Let it come so I might hear leaf splats, watch the wet blotch, taste on my tongue, feel on my face the pentecost of petrichor.” The book ends with a gorgeous poem and Les’ hope that he and Becky can forge a way to be “alone together.”
Kathleen Brewin Lewis is the author of two poetry collections, Fluent in Rivers and July’s Thick Kingdom, both published by FutureCycle Press. Her poems, short stories, and essays have also appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Still: The Journal, Cider Press Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. V: Georgia, among other publications. An avid hiker, Kathleen’s writing focuses on the natural world. A graduate of Wake Forest University and of the MA in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State, she is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Ron Rash Poetry Award.