Ron Rash is a masterful short story writer–one of my favorites. Many people think of his novels first, but his short story collections are top notch and my favorite books of his. Burning Bright and, his most recent release, Nothing Gold Can Stay, are two of the best collections published in the 21st C.
I also take a selfish pride in my love for Rash’s work because I knew of him before he became nationally known. He read at East Carolina University in the late 90s, where I did my undergrad, and it was the first reading I’d ever attended. At that time he had a poetry collection–Eureka Mill–and a short story collection that’s now out-of-print, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth, both published by small presses in South Carolina (Hub City, which has grown in recent years and now has a national reputation, and Bench Press, which I’m pretty sure is now defunct–copies of Rash’s first story collection are going for $600+ on Amazon!).
Anyway, I remember the value Rash placed on emotion. You’d be surprised how much contemporary fiction avoids emotion, as if our post-post-post-whatever-modern world is too cool and cynical to acknowledge that yes, our daily lives are still defined by basic emotional truths. Of course, this isn’t to say Rash’s work is sentimental. His work is usually quiet and introspective yet still surprising, dark, and Gothic. Flannery O’Connor famously said, and I paraphrase here, that the greatest writerly sins are sentimentality and pornography. Rash is neither sentimental nor “pornographic”/pulpish, and O’Connor’s point is that sentimentality exists on both ends of the spectrum–mushiness on one end, nihilistic pulp on the other. Rash is a writer who clearly writes within the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, as well as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, among many others.
“Night Hawks,” which originally appeared in Grist and appears in Nothing Gold Can Stay, is such a story. Without spoiling, I’ll say the story features a maimed protagonist, Ginny, who has a rather large scar on her face from an accident that occurs within the plot. She’s a teacher and has to leave her job at the local high school, one she was having trouble with before the accident occurred. She’s always been isolated and misunderstood, an introvert and hermit, and the scar only makes matters worse. Did I not tell you Rash does the Southern Gothic thing?
The story’s title comes from her job as a graveyard shift DJ on a local AM radio show. It’s the perfect job for her because she can connect with people from afar, without the shame of her disfigurement. Like many radio DJs, she creates a moniker, and it’s perfect: the Night Hawk. She’s an immediate success and connects with people–lonely people who need a voice to fall asleep to at night, for instance–yet, throughout the story, she’s still alone herself and severely depressed; her depression is a debilitating, chronic variety, fraught with anxiety and hints of paranoia. This isn’t a simplistic story where the damaged protagonist “finds herself” through her new job, more than one where the new job is the only thing keeping her alive.
I’m posting the story’s ending, which I don’t think will ruin the story for you. It’s quite beautiful. And, if you haven’t purchased Nothing Gold Can Stay, I highly recommend it. Also, check out Silas House’s wonderful interview with Rash on House’s show, Hillbilly Solid. Not only is the interview great, but so is the music, and much of it fits the mood of Rash’s work. Here’s the story’s ending:
At the radio station she would unlock the door, and soon enough Buddy Harper would end his broadcast and leave. She would say, This is the Night Hawk, and play “After Midnight.” Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to millworkers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and the godless. All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone. (225)