- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Robert Ashcom
Algonquin Books, $19.95, 224 pages

Robert Ashcom, author of "Winter Run," writes beautifully, yet with total absence of pretension. This phenomenon may be even rarer than ever; these days we habitually use the adjective "literary" to modify such nouns as used to carry the idea within themselves. There is a touch of embarrassment in the phrase "literary fiction" as if it were uncomfortable to think too long about what to call the other kinds. Out of such self-consciousness has come a range of overwrought stylistics, from which this collection of related stories nearly a novelis miraculously free.
The nine stories, framed by a prologue and a coda, cover half a dozen years in the boyhood of Charlie Lewis, an enthusiastic, sensitive child of slightly preoccupied parents who have moved to a rural area in Virginia in the years just after World War II. Charlie's father is employed in a somewhat distant city, and is at home only on weekends. His mother is taking her time about becoming acclimated to rural life, and seems willing to trust the friends Charlie makes among the local black men, whose knowledge of hounds and hogs, wildlife and rural life, Charlie is avid to possess.
Chief among these men is Matthew Tanner, who comes as close to being Charlie's surrogate father as would have been possible in mid-century Virginia. Matthew is patient with Charlie, tolerant of his nearly incessant questions and his tendency to plunge into threatening situations. Charlie is often oblivious to the natural and social forces that would make him less than welcome. But Matthew also knows what he knows, with a firm confidence out of which he can address Charlie with absolute authority.
The hard facts of race relations at that time, however, are exemplified in the presence of Robert Paine, another local black man who works mostly as a farmhand in the area. In terms of his time on stage, he is a minor character, but Mr. Ashcom manages his appearances with tact. Paine is resentful of Charlie, and of Matthew's willingness to allow Charlie into the circle of men who gather at night to hear hounds chase foxes and raccoons around the nearby hills, or who sit with a whiskey jug after a day of butchering hogs. At the age of around 10, Charlie can do no more than faintly realize Paine's mysterious anger, but by the time he is 14, he comes to a clearer understanding of it.
Many of the characters in "Winter Run" are memorably drawn people, especially Professor James, the owner of a large property, once a farm and now mostly exhausted pasture, called Silver Hill. A renovated building on the property is the home to which Charlie's parents have recently come. Professor James and his wife are in their mid-70s; among the many realizations that dawn on Charlie with convincing slowness, over the years of his approaching adolescence, is that the friendship between his mother and Professor James, though tainted by no impropriety, is nevertheless touched with regret that things are as they are.
Aside from these and several other memorable human characters, though, the population of Winter Run is greatly enriched by the presence of numerous animals, both wild and domestic. Some of them, such as a mature boar hog and a Brahma bull, are somewhere in between: fenced in, and subject in ways to the will of their owners, they are nevertheless dangerous enough that Charlie is repeatedly warned against getting close to them. He disobeys these warnings and experiences some close shaves and minor injuries of the sort that most rural children encounter almost as a matter of course.
The prologue and the coda are narrated by the adult that Charlie Lewis has become; as the book opens he is coming home to be with his mother, who is now dying. From her hospital bed, she says something to him out of her near-delirium about the choices he has made or will make, and he sits there puzzling over what she has said. There follows a moment like a great many in this book, when a few sentences strike a brilliant balance between giving and withholding the knowledge toward which we are reading:
"I couldn't breathe. It was like suffocation from the dust around a grain bag when it is being filled. The dust is like ether and the world spins. And your eyes swim. You raise your head and the far wall of the feed mill looks obscured as if by rain. That was what it was like sitting on a steel chair in that room, with my choices.
"And then the world lit up the way it did once as I was leading a stallion out to his paddock on a spring Sunday morning. It happened just as I opened the gate to let him through. And for a moment everything was revealed to me. Then it was gone."
The coda, too, is narrated by the protagonist, as is one of the stories, "Backfire," the only one in which Charlie's father makes a significant appearance. The rest are narrated by a "we" somewhat vaguely associated with the setting, like the narrative voice in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." The tactic is entirely effective, and allows the adult Charlie a distance from the child that brings both to convincing, durable life. "Winter Run" is a beautiful evocation of a vanished world, and an absorbing portrait of a splendid character. The book has just been awarded the New Fiction Award of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Henry Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently "Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews." He teaches poetry, translation, and literary journalism at American University.

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