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the trusty

10 july 2011

I don't read much magazine fiction. The one magazine that publishes fiction and arrives weekly at my mailbox is The New Yorker – well, it's the one magazine that publishes fiction and arrives much of anywhere anymore. These weekly stories accumulate in a wicker basket next to the couch; I've come to expect a certain drab realism and conscientious multiculturalism from New Yorker stories in recent years, and unless I see an author's name that speaks of some energy and inventiveness, I let them accumulate. And even if I do see such a name, you know how good intentions go. I saw Ron Rash's name in the issue of May 23rd, and here it is July.

I knew of Rash as the author of a very sharp novel, One Foot in Eden, and of some intriguing short-story collections. (Unfortunately I don't get much further in story collections than in magazines; I need some continuing story to connect my reading days. And Rash has written several other novels, too, but I am the shallowest reader imaginable.) One Foot in Eden is mystery fiction with strong Appalachian local color – I'd describe its family resemblance as Russell Banks, several hundred miles to the southwest. "The Trusty," from that May New Yorker, is Appalachian fiction with a crime theme, and develops powerful "what happens next" traction.

The focal point of "The Trusty" is the title character, Sinkler, on a chain gang in Depression North Carolina for "thinking a bank manager wouldn't notice his teller slipping a few bills in his pocket" (69). Sinkler's problem is how to escape from the chain gang and enlist an 18-year-old farm wife, Lucy, in his venture. Ron Rash's problem is to make the story live for the 21st century, given that it's an idea out of many a 1940s noir.

For me (and I think many a reader) fiction does not have to be original in the slightest to be effective. There's an academic taste which values the never-been-done and derides the derivative. I can see the reasons for that taste; I can even see how people actually internalize and get joy from the unprecedented; but I don't share it. I suppose I like art where certain parameters are set from the start and can be assumed, and others (pace, momentum, irony, dialogue) can be amplified.

Such a story is "The Trusty." There's almost no exposition; for a reader familiar with Robert Mitchum movies and James M. Cain yarns, there hardly needs to be. Rash's one concession to "scene-setting" comes on the first page:

Sinkler wondered if these apple-knockers had heard they were supposed to be getting a new deal. (69)

Till that moment, we could be any time when chain gangs were in vogue; from that moment, we're fixed in the mid-1930s. But topical details hardly matter in the story. It suffices to know we're in a world without cell phones, a world where trains run from city to city and nobody needs ID, a world where people pay cash, and 18-year-old farm brides have never been farther than Asheville.

How far do Sinkler and Lucy get in "The Trusty"? There aren't unlimited options in a formulaic tale, and I will not abuse a reader's trust by mentioning which one Rash chooses. Almost any of the directions would do, provided it arose from the characters and their competing interests. "The Trusty" is the kind of story that gives us access to one character's needs and desires (Sinkler's), but not to the others'. And it is character-driven. Sinkler is a charming, unscrupulous drifter. His type is easily limned, but his uniqueness is a product of his speech, which Rash renders deftly and individually in a few sentences. This is storytelling in its essence.

Rash, Ron. "The Trusty." The New Yorker, 23 May 2011. 69-75.