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above the waterfall

30 october 2015

Above the Waterfall is a tightly constructed, beautifully written novel. It opens up depths beneath its satisfying noirish plot, but doesn't tell us about those depths in too much detail. Ron Rash combines craftsmanship with a feel for a culture and its language – and social commentary with a sure sense of genre entertainment.

Rash structures Above the Waterfall in almost-alternating chapters (there's enough variation that you don't get lulled into formula). There are two first-person narrators: Les, a sheriff on the cusp of retirement, and Sarah, a park ranger traumatized when young by a school shooting. Les is as garrulous as Sarah is withdrawn; both are haunted by old accidents, bad choices, bad relationships. They're not quite romantically interested, but not quite not, and anyway the plot doesn't really drive toward either a conventional romantic ending or a conventional breakup.

Les and Sarah are strongly distinct narrators, though occasionally when a chapter starts with the narrator caring for another character, you may be initially unsure who's speaking: they share a capacity for empathy even though they're so different in verbal style. Les is more vernacular, though he's an artist by temperament; he keeps order in his county by being able to talk with, or if necessary at, its various bullies and bullshitters. Sarah, though she seems low-verbal in person, is a poet; much of her part of the narrative involves the eventual composition of a poem, though Rash is subtle about Sarah's verbal artistry. (We get to read the poem at the end of the book.)

Many themes run through Above the Waterfall: environment, economic development (for better or worse), drug use (weed is good and meth bad in Les's calculus, but he's an interested party, massively on the take from the local pot growers). The plot centers on tension over land use in the hills, with tourists and locals competing over fishing access and aesthetics. A fish kill seems to be the work of a mulish senior citizen named Gerald. Neither Les nor Becky (who is almost Gerald's caregiver, she's so fond of him) can believe that Gerald would kill fish ‐ well, maybe imports brought in to stock the rivers for tourists, but never the local "speckleds." But all signs point that way, and as Les is fond of saying, hoofs on a road almost always mean a horse, not a zebra.

At this point, Above the Waterfall develops a good deal of old-fashioned mystery plot, with a cast of raunchy Appalachian-noir characters auditioning for role of major villain. The plot eventually resolves so neatly and completely in sheer mystery terms that you can miss how Rash avoids saccharine psychological conclusions. More than most crime novels, this one will repay rereading.

Rash, Ron. Above the Waterfall. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.