The Caretaker: A Novel

Ron Rash. Doubleday, 2023. 252 pages. $28.00.

Caretaker cover image

By David Madden

Seventy-year-old Ron Rash’s stellar international reputation derives from eight novels, two of which have been made into movies; seven volumes of short stories; and four volumes of poetry. His works have earned numerous awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and have often appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

Having effectively opened the novel in the year 1951 in the midst of the Korean conflict, Rash moves the narrative to placid, aristocratic, tourist-wealthy Blowing Rock, North Carolina, famous for the legend of a unique love of a native-American maiden and a young brave. Rash has declared that the novel is “about love.”

Rash has structured this short novel with five chapters, broken up into thirty-five, third-person perspectives, with repeated focus on five dynamically interactive characters: Gant Blackburn, the caretaker of Mountain View Cemetery; Jonas Hampton, his friend; Cora Hampton, Jonas’ mother, grieving the death of her two girls; Daniel Hampton, Jonas’ wealthy father; compassionate Dr. Egan; Daniel and Cora Clarke, poor farmers; Naomi Clarke, Jacob’s beloved, who becomes a close friend of Blackburn the caretaker. Playing upon the title, each of the characters is either a care giver or a care denier.

Rash’s richly poetic style has earned him much praise. Although he was born in South Carolina, he has lived many years in North Carolina and is the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. His style, like that of many Southern writers, is derived more deeply from the literary tradition than the oral. For instance, early in the novel, a North Korean soldier in combat with Jacob, “crouched and sprang forward. His knife blade glanced Jacob’s neck, drew blood,” his “free hand slipped and he fell face-first, rising to his knees as Jacob’s bayonet slashed his left cheek from ear to mouth, molars glinting white, where the skin flapped open.” And employing the literary style, he often strikes a lyrical note, such as this one: “As Blackburn stared out the cottage window, ground fog purled around the stones. Grave markers appeared unmoored, as if they might drift away, leaving each grave nameless and dateless.”

Sir Walter Scott’s famous phrase of over 200 years ago may readily be applied to the conspiracy that is at the heart of Rash’s The Caretaker: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Rash has imagined a complex web of deception that is the work of the Hamptons and the Clarkes, Dr. Eagan, Blackburn, and even the telegrapher, Poston. That the motives are both marginally good and marginally bad demands the reader’s close, but richly rewarded, attention.

That’s Rash’s effectively rendered narrative set-up. The rest is an open book.

David Madden is the author of 15 works of fiction, including Pleasure-Dome, set in Blowing Rock, and many works of nonfiction, including Momma’s Lost Piano: An Impressionistic Memoir.