A 1996 psychological experiment by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen used a game of chicken to examine the culture of honor among Southern white males. Participants in the study were insulted, then forced to make way for a 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound student approaching them through a narrow hallway. Northerners gave him a wide berth, but Southern men consistently refused to budge, veering aside only a few feet before impact. Burning Bright, a collection of short stories by PEN/Faulkner-nominated Appalachian writer Ron Rash, is similarly interested in how Southern pride runs aground in an increasingly interconnected world—and what the consequences are for those who hold fast to a code of ethics that can put them on the wrong side of history and the law.
Rash is a poet as well as a novelist and short-story writer, and Burning Bright, a collection of 12 slim, efficiently drawn narratives, is populated by characters who are likewise careful with their words, preferring to communicate not through speech, but through the flick of a lighter or the guitar solo from “Free Bird.” The story “Falling Star,” which echoes “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason (herself a PEN/Faulkner finalist and winner), portrays a husband in stasis who watches helplessly as his wife outpaces and eventually outgrows him. Like many of the pieces here, the narrative ends before any real resolution has been achieved, but the looming divorce, or prison sentence, or death is no less imminent.
Retribution is usually handed down by law-enforcement officials, who are as blandly dispassionate as they are inescapable. Either their energy is misdirected—like the ranger from “Into The Gorge” who denies an arthritic man access to his birthright of ginseng plants—or they’re simply hapless, like the ineffectual Sheriff Hawkins of “Back Of Beyond,” who throws up his hands at the encroaching meth epidemic, inadvertently spurring a pawnshop owner to vigilante justice. Rash’s cast of blinkered characters do the wrong things for the right reasons, as they’re driven away from their families or into the arms of the law by a combination of superstition and desperation. In the end they wait, stoically, for a fate they’re tired of running from.