Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press, recently planned and coordinated the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival, both a birthday celebration and a tribute to the body of work for one of South Carolina’s, and the nation’s, most beloved authors. The festival drew a constellation of literary stars as well as Hollywood celebrities, too. I felt honored to get an invitation.
Imagine my delight, then, when Jonathan emailed one day saying, “Ron Rash needs a ride to the party. Any way you could take him?” For those of you unfamiliar, Rash is probably second only to Conroy in his level of fame and reverence in my part of the world. Of his many novels, Serena and The World Made Straight were made into feature films, with Serena starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
Two-and-a-half hours with Ron Rash held captive in my car? Yes, I thought, throw me in that briar patch.
I showed up at the meeting time and shook hands with this long, lanky man with a handle-bar mustache, two days of a stubble beard, and a heavy Appalachian accent of Western North Carolina. In short order I found out that Rash, like Conroy, was first a poet, then a novelist. I know a few of those poetry-to-prose converts. I have to admit I’m jealous. Read them, and their words tend to touch your soul unlike everyday fiction writers. They are so used to an economy of words, it seems to me, that each of theirs contains its own novella.
My goal was to conduct a conversation, not an interrogation. I wanted to be a gracious host en route to Beaufort in my little Kia Soul.Yet, in my Soul lies the problem. We were 30 minutes from our destination. It had been a wonderful trip that included a stop at Cracker Barrel for some chicken and dumplings and greens—what all good Southern boys eat. Seven miles before our exit, and I felt the continuous thump of a flat tire!
Kia Souls do not have spares. They include a can of Fix-a-Flat. While a fine product, it cannot help when the tread separates from the tire. A tow truck. An extra hour added to the trip. And I was mortified beyond belief.
My instructions were to deposit Ron at a private rental home in Beaufort. It allegedly had a keypad lock, which gave one access to a house key. Ron and I stood staring at a blank LED screen and no keypad. It took me a minute to realize the “LED screen” was no screen at all, but simply a plastic cover. I slid it up exposing the keypad, which was more like a bike lock with rolling, numbered tumblers. Ron handled that part and could not for the life of him pry open the compartment holding the key. Again, I was able to help.
He took the key, and again for the life of him, could not get the door to open. Familiar with old homes (mine is 105 years old) and the varying humidities of South Carolina’s coast, I realized sometimes you have to push or pull on an exterior door to get the lock to click all the way. Ron had thrown his hands up in exasperation and was dialing the realtor when I opened the door gaining him entry into an interior right out of Southern Living magazine.
My embarrassment dissipated. At that moment I realized Ron Rash and I shared several traits, not the least of which is a basic ineptness to handle anything slightly mechanical. On that day, the gods of literature smiled while the patron saint of handymen shook his head in disgust.