Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on One Foot in Eden.
Think early Larry McMurtry. That's the best way to describe Ron Rash's exquisite writing style in his first novel, One Foot in Eden. Rash, who previously published two short story collections and a children's book, brings us an exotic tale about a bizarre murder in a small Appalachian town. With its razor-sharp descriptions and clever narrations, Eden is as touching as it is juxtaposed.
Set in the 1950s in Jocassee, a town in South Carolina, Rash tells the story of a local military veteran who suddenly disappears and the people who are involved in the case. Rather than follow the basic fiction formula of moving the plot in a straight line, Rash repeatedly switches the narration to give the story more depth. Told through the voices of the sheriff, the accused farmer, his young wife, their child, and the sheriff's deputy, the author creates more angles than an architect. And that's exactly what Rash is, a literary architect. He starts by slowly setting up the foundation of the story and then gradually builds its structure through his characters' provocative perspectives. In doing this, he gives the reader a panoramic view of the townfolk, and the murder mystery that becomes too tricky to solve. What the reader will end up getting is a story so rich with cultural detail, it'll feel like you grew up in the quaint community.
The opening narration belongs to Sheriff Will Alexander, a complex, shoot-from-the-hip type of man with a troubled past. After hearing how the cold-hearted Holland had disappeared, Alexander finds himself on Billy Holcombe's land, searching for the man many people hate. While doing his checklist of duties, the reader is slowly exposed to the sheriff's backstory, a past filled with dashed hopes and sudden disappointments. Having returned from war to an estranged family and a quiet wife, the sheriff is stuck thinking about the child he never had and the brother he hardly knew. Searching for the thug's body is the only thing that can distract him from his blase life. But the moment the reader begins to warm up to this character, Rash switches the narration to Billy's wife, Amy. Having discovered her husband cannot impregnate her, she takes matters into her own hands, only to see things go horribly awry. Amy suddenly finds herself struggling to keep her family, and marriage, together. It is here, through her perspective, that the story gets its legs. By showcasing the vulnerability of Amy and her desire for motherhood, Rash adds a sensitive touch to an otherwise gothic story.
But the narration switches again, this time giving the reader Billy's interpretation of the events. Like the others, Billy's past is as sad as they come. Having suffered from polio as a kid, his life finally gets on track after meeting Amy, a young woman who makes his heart skip a beat. They marry but soon find themselves dealing with a number of issues.
It isn't until he learns of Amy's mistake that things begin to get harder for the farmer. As the days go by, Billy becomes certain of his place in life but struggles to be a responsible husband and father. His own interpretation of the murder is as interesting as his desire for normality. Billy's narration, as lengthy as it is, jumpstarts a twisty drama that will end up carrying this book to the finish line.
Next on the list is the son, Isaac, a bright boy with a large imagination. After having just learned about Billy and Amy, the reader begins to understand more about what makes Isaac so special. Perhaps the best narration in the book, Isaac's point of view shows his struggle to grow up in a community of long stares and whispers. It isn't until he meets Holland's mother that he learns while trying to outrun the Carolina Power company, a greedy business planning on turning Jocassee into one big lake. What Isaac finally discovers, and how he discovers it, is as amazing as it gets. Rash's ability to tap into his characters' fragile souls is what makes this book stand out from others. The final narration is the deputy, a curious young man who is created by Rash to wrap up all the loose ends. He ends up recapping everything that had happened, giving the story a refreshing finishing touch.
In all honesty, you really don't know what you're getting yourself into when you begin to read One Foot in Eden, a story that's as unorthodox as its structure. The beginning is slow, and the narration shifts can confuse you. Add to that dark characters with open-ended backgrounds and you've got a story that seems to be going nowhere. But here's the beauty of it all: by the time you get into the second narration, you begin to see how every segment of the story compliments the next. What you didn't quite get in the first narration is discussed in the second.
Through each perspective, the reader can see the murder mystery, and the town, in a completely different light. Even the characters who once seemed vague and suspicious are made whole by each of the clever viewpoints.
Rash's style is quick, sharp, and subtly descriptive. Whether he's describing the chirping cicadas that infest the open land or the way a woman feels when she's being kissed, he does it with so much Southern twang, it's seductive. Even though it starts out slow, One Foot in Eden turns out to be touching and extremely enchanting with its religious symbolism and all-too-realistic characters. While it is no Lonesome Dove, this debut novel will still make Rash an influential writer of Southern literature.