The latest from prolific poet and fiction writer Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist for Serena, provides a damaged man's look back at a long-ago and haunted past.
It's 1969. Eugene and his older brother, Bill, who live with their mother and their tyrannical town-doctor grandfather in a small town in western North Carolina, are spending a summer afternoon at their remote fishing hole when they encounter a sylphlike young woman—a "mermaid," she says—who introduces herself as Ligeia. She's from Florida and has been banished to this backwater after a misadventure in a commune, to live with a preacher uncle and his family. She is a miracle of exoticism, an in-this-place unprecedented representative of hippiedom, and the boys immediately sign up for training in free love. The more ambitious and dutiful brother, Bill, already well on his way to the medical career his grandfather has ordained for him, quickly pulls back, but his more impulsive younger brother, smitten, falls into an extended summer romance with Ligeia (to whom he supplies stolen sample packs of the downers she prefers) and embarks in earnest on what will be a more enduring relationship with drink. Flash-forward 46 years: Bill has fulfilled his destiny and become a celebrated surgeon, while Eugene, who once dabbled promisingly with writing, has given it up and devoted himself full-time to alcohol and self-loathing. He lives in exile from his family, having scarred and nearly killed his daughter in a booze-caused crash, and he and Bill are only rarely and tensely in touch. But when a skeleton is found, spilled into the creek after decades shrouded in a blue tarp, the two brothers are forced to wrangle again with each other and with the events of that fateful summer.
The novel hits its share of false or clumsy notes, but it's not ruined by them thanks to Rash's sure evocation of the time and place and the complexity and poignancy of his portrait of his protagonist.