On a cold night in 1951, one year into the Korean War, Jacob Hampton stands sentry and scours the darkness for signs of the enemy.
He tries to keep his composure: "On guard duty the only thing worse than being alone was the fear that you weren't." That fear is realized when a North Korean lunges from the shadows to attack him. The pair fight on a frozen river, one armed with a knife, the other a bayonet, the ice fracturing beneath them. Afterwards, despite being wounded, exhausted, mud-splattered and blood-streaked, Jacob vows to stay alive and soldier on.
The tense, cinematic opening of Ron Rash's 20th novel, "The Caretaker," is a textbook example of how to snare your reader. Rash maintains narrative momentum as he moves from a war zone overseas to homier territory, namely rural Appalachia, the region that has formed the backdrop for much of his fiction. Conflict of a different kind unfolds and affects Jacob and those closest to him in this stirring, well-crafted tale about young love, family honor and male friendship.
The friends in question are Jacob and his "blood brother" Blackburn Gant. The latter is caretaker of a cemetery near Blowing Rock, N.C. Left with an "afflicted face" from polio in his childhood, and later abandoned by his family, Blackburn lives a life cut off from the community — in the words of one character, "alone on that hill with nothing but dead folks for company." When Jacob is conscripted, he asks Blackburn to look after his wife Naomi in his absence.
Only 16, poorly educated and pregnant, Naomi needs all the support she can get. She and Jacob eloped, which led his parents, prominent figures in Blowing Rock, to badmouth her and disinherit him. Blackburn takes her back to her father's farm in Tennessee, away from pointing fingers and wagging tongues. While waiting for the baby to arrive and its father to return, the outcasts form a bond that townsfolk believe is too close.
Then Jacob is discharged from the Army and sent home to convalesce. But his plans to resume life with his wife are thwarted by his parents, who resort to desperate, devious measures to keep them apart. When cracks appear in their scheme, jeopardizing the future they've devised for Jacob, they choose to deal severely with Blackburn.
Simply stated, "The Caretaker" is one of Rash's finest novels, impressing on multiple levels. Rash expertly toggles back and forth to reveal key developments at different moments in time. His characters ring true, from stoic and dependable Blackburn to Jacob's ruthless parents — his hot-tempered father and his mother with a glare "so cold it seared into you."
As ever, the rugged beauty of the landscape is richly conveyed. It ends a tad abruptly, but otherwise this is supremely accomplished storytelling.
Malcolm Forbes, who has written for the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, will next review Jhumpa Lahiri's "Roman Stories." He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Ron Rash.
Publisher: Doubleday, 252 pages, $28.