A Fine Work Falls Only a Few Yards Short of Greatness

Serena, by Ron Rash
I’d hoped this book would be the knockout American novel I’d been looking for—full of social content, great characters acting out a great story amid a magnificent scenic backdrop.
Three out of four ain’t bad.
The story is one of typical American enterprise, unleavened by responsibility. Rash—perhaps North Carolina’s best writer in this decade—knows to exaggerate things to the limits of believability to make a point, and he does this with both character depictions and with the story these characters stir up. In a few words, his story is this:
George Permberton has met and married Serena and they’ve in turn married their fortunes to the early twentieth century U.S.’s great southeastern timber resources. They are the infamous timber barons—subsequently their denuding of the southeast U.S. forests the reason why the federal government established national forests.
But the Pembertons are more than careless with the land and forests. They are unprincipled to the max whenever something or somebody stands in their way. They fire sawyers to keep their fellow lumbermen intimidated. They kill anyone, even lawmen, who stand against their land-stripping. And, when Serena can’t bear them an heir, they don’t blink at attempting to kill an illegitimate son of George’s, whom they feel may threaten their empire.
Essentially this is a morality play, built loosely around the prototype of Macbeth. For the most part, Rash does the story justice. Particularly near story’s end, his story-telling is masterful in the way he plays out the Pembertons’ self-destruction.
And the manner in which Rash is able to immerse the reader in the U.S.’s 1920s culture and in the southeast’s timbering processes bears witness to his ability to assimilate research and work it into his story.
His prose seems a bit timid at first, as if he’s unsure of how to append voice to story, i.e.:
Should the narrator talk as do the mountain folk of Carolina and Tennessee, who people the Pembertons’ timber empire?
He gradually resolves these subtleties, and this initial mini-stumble hardly damages the book’s overall impact.
I’ve been told by another writer that I entrust too much of my work to narrative. Perhaps this is so, but I suspect it’s a simple matter of taste—in both my reading and my writing. That said, I must complain: In strategic places, Rash steps back from his central story to depict the still-magnificent forests of the southeast, and the looks and impacts of timbermen’s denuding of the land. But his device for doing this is to rely on dialogue between several of the mountain folk, who attempt to describe these things indirectly to the reader. In my mind, this waters his dialogue in these segments.
For my taste, this technique doesn’t work as well as it should, for two reasons:
• By nature, these folk are ineloquent and consequently understate the spectacle of both the forests and the timber scalping.
• Such depiction has always been the work of narrative, and it would have better served his purpose here than such dialogue.
Rash seems to want to appear conscious in this ambitious work of the birth of natural conservatism, both in the fight to establish the first national forests, and in the scenic and ecological impact of timbering the land. Were it not for his decision to depict such things via dialogue, Serena would have been all I’d hoped for—a work up there with the best of Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
My rating: 4 stars out of 5

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