For his sixth novel, Rash (The Cove, 2012, etc.) plays a park ranger’s past traumas against a sheriff’s present crises.
When Becky Shytle was in elementary school in Virginia, a gunman invaded her school, killing the teacher who had escorted her to safety. For months afterward she couldn’t speak, finding her voice only in the safe haven of her grandparents’ farm. Later, as a park ranger, a relationship ended badly when her boyfriend became an eco-terrorist and was killed. That time, it was the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who saved her soul, along with the anonymous cave painters of Lascaux. In an unnamed town in the North Carolina mountains, Rash’s invariable setting, Becky, now the superintendent of a state park, has found a kindred spirit in the sheriff, Les. He too turned inward after his wife’s suicide attempt led to an exceptionally painful divorce. Les is 51, retiring after 30 years’ hard grind; just two more items of business left. The first is a meth bust, so nightmarish a rookie officer quits on the spot. (Rash on meth-heads is always riveting.) The second involves the poisoning of trout at a fishing resort. The prime suspect is elderly landowner Gerald Blackwelder, a good man but ornery and Becky’s staunch supporter in all things environmental. She alternates as narrator with Les; her Hopkins-infused musings are a counterpoint to Les’ action-oriented segments. There are six players in the poisoning case, so Les has his work cut out for him, and this storyline takes over the novel. An ordinary whodunit seems to have elbowed aside a more spacious novel about characters whose deep affinities with the natural world, and its interpreters, sustain them among unremitting man-made violence.
For once this major American writer appears, uncharacteristically, to have veered off course.