In present-day Sylva, a headline blares: “Remains Identified as Jane Mosely,” with a photograph of a young woman who, in the summer of 1969, had initiated 16-year-old Eugene Matney into the rites of sex, booze and drugs.
Eugene and his dutiful older brother Bill knew the red-haired, free-spirited nymph visiting from Daytona Beach, Fla., as Ligeia, slippery and beautiful as a mermaid. On hot afternoons at Panther Creek outside Sylva, they had blissfully caroused with her in the cool water.
But early on, Bill, a senior at Wake Forest with a steady girl and plans for medical school, pulls away. Eugene continues to fall heedlessly in love as he and Ligeia guzzle wine and pop the pills that Eugene filches from his physician grandfather’s supply cabinet.
Who wouldn’t be drawn into “The Risen,” the latest from our own New York Times bestselling novelist Ron Rash, who teaches at Westsern Carolina and sets most of his fiction and poetry in Appalachia?
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Near summer’s end, Ligeia, of course, has news – she’s pregnant, a revelation that causes a life-long rift between the brothers. Soon, she disappears.
So now, at last, it’s clear: Someone stuffed her dead body into a tarp and buried it near the creek. But who?
If a whodunit doesn’t sound like Ron Rash, hang on. Other things do.
The very title is as boldly religious as his “Saints at the River” or “One Foot in Eden.” Clearly, we’re in for a deep ride here.
“The Risen” has a more modern, less homespun, feel to it than, say, “The Cove,” where the extinct Carolina parakeet flits about, or “Serena,” where a blind hag delivers prophecies to the lumbermen.
But maybe gothic is something Rash can’t help. “The Risen” can claim Nebo, a mute handyman who waits on the back porch steps, his shaved head in the summertime looking as if it has been boiled. And there’s Ligeia herself, whose name belongs to one of the beguiling Sirens and means “clear-voiced” and “whistling.”
You will especially recognize Rash for his interest in family dynamics.
When Eugene and Bill were small, they and their widowed mother moved in with her father-in-law, the domineering town physician who knew everyone’s secrets – “which husband had contracted gonorrhea, which daughter needed to visit an aunt for a few months, which mother took Valium.” His need for control and obedience is mighty.
Eugene, who narrates this tale, is now a 62-year-old failed writer, a struggling alcoholic, divorced and also estranged from his only daughter. Brother Bill, on the other hand, has long been an esteemed surgeon in Sylva, married to his college sweetheart. Even by Eugene’s accounting, Bill’s “a good man, compassionate, generous.”
Why did one brother go one way, one another?
Maybe Eugene, who “saw things differently” and had no aptitude with the knife, lacked pragmatism. Or maybe it was that early waltz with alcohol, that “glow first felt on a Sunday at Panther Creek,” a glow he chases each day with each drink. Perhaps Ligeia was the indulgent id to whom he surrendered too soon too much.
Or maybe good/bad, successful/not, is not the point at all. Maybe the point is the integrity with which a person manages to survive. Rash is grappling here with age-old questions of good and evil, selfishness and unselfishness, empathy and compassion and its lack.
“The Risen” is an important novel – and an intriguing one – from one of our master storytellers. In its pages, the past rises up, haunting and chiding, demanding answers of us all.