Ron Rash: “The Trusty”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Ron Rash’s “The Trusty” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 23, 2011, issue.

Click for a larger image.

Again The New Yorker reminds me of a relatively young yet relatively prolific American author whom I have failed to read ever.  Over the last ten years, Rash has published four novels and three collections of short stories (his debut collection was published in 1994).  Yet I hadn’t heard of Ron Rash until his novel Serena was named a finalist to the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, and I never really even looked into that book.  From a quick glance around, it seems most of Rash’s books take place in the Southeastern United States (certainly that is true of this story), and it is there that his books have received the most recognition.  Until recently, that is.  Before being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, Rash was a finalist in 2008 for a collection of short stories called Chemistry and Other Stories.  Then, in 2010, Rash followed-up being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner when his collection of short stories, Burning Bright, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.  But, on to “The Trusty,” Rash’s first piece of fiction for The New Yorker.

“The Trusty” takes place in South Carolina during the Depression.  A chain gang is working away the hours.  I didn’t know what a trusty was until I read this story, so I’ll pass that information on: a trusty is a prisoner who has been granted certain special privileges.  In this case, Sinkler, the trusty, is in charge of fetching water from local wells; consequently, he does not wear restraints of any kind and is free to wander unsupervised for longer periods of time.

When the story begins, Sinkler is trying to find a new farmhouse with a well.  The chain gang is moving further down the road, and each day his hike is longer and longer.  In the second paragraph, he finds it.

The next day, Sinkler took the metal buckets and walked until he found a farmhouse.  It was no closer than the other, even a bit farther, but worth padding the hoof a few extra steps.  The well he’d been using belonged to a hunch-backed widow.  The woman who appeared in this doorway wore her hair in a similar tight bun and draped herself in the same sort of flour-cloth dress, but she looked to be in her mid-twenties, like Sinkler.  Two weeks would pass before they got beyond this farmhouse, perhaps another two weeks before the next well.  Plenty of time to quench a different kind of thirst.

That’s the first indication that, while Sinkler may have been a trusty and while his crime might not be the type to put fear into the hearts of housewives (“What you in prison for?” / “Thinking a bank manager wouldn’t notice his teller slipping a few bills in his pocket.”), he’s not safe.  In his long walks alone, he must think of hundreds of ways to take advantage of the bit of freedom he’s been given.

Much of this story unfolds as Sinkler insinuates himself into the mind of the young woman while her older husband works out in the fields.  He plays with her own sense of being in a prison, until, as he hoped, she suggests they both make a break for it.  She knows the terrain, after all. 

Tension builds when we don’t know exactly what Sinkler plans to do with the young woman once they escape.  It isn’t in his interest to keep her with him for long, but abandoning her too soon — or at all — might lead her to seek vengence by calling the law.  At the same time, we become aware that the young woman is seeking out her own salvation too.

23 thoughts on “Ron Rash: “The Trusty””

  1. Shelley says:

    An interesting post, because the setting of my work is also the Depression, and I recognize the dress….but since I haven’t gotten my New Yorker yet, what I am most struck by is the serene authority of that beautiful magazine cover.

  2. Trevor says:

    I think it’s is a nice cover, too. I haven’t looked at its title yet, but my guess is that it is an homage to the New York Public Library, which is celebrating 100 years right now.

  3. Joe Cotten says:

    Yes but what the hell happens in the last paragraph? Am I the only one confused??

  4. Trevor says:

    He’s been had, Joe C.

  5. B Nicholson says:

    Was the metal into dirt the sound of a shovel digging a grave for Sinkler? By the “husband?” Sinkler’s hand print already being there – had Lucy led him in a circle as they ascended and descended? Can the couple have done this before, or made the plan when Lucy told her husband about Sinkler’s plan?

  6. Trevor says:

    Ah, the handprint. I’d forgotten about that and actually am not sure what that means, though your interpretation sounds great to me, B. It isn’t, to me, likely that she’d take him all the way to another city, so, yes, I think she did lead him in a circle, disorienting him, wearing him out.

  7. Betsy says:

    “He’s been had,” says Trevor.

    In Ron Rash’s story, “The Trusty”, a con gets conned. Having been recently conned but good ourselves by the grifters who gave us the “Great Recession”, there are some among us who read Rash’s tale with a kind of twisty satisfaction.

    We see ourselves in Lucy Sorrels’ house – the one with no windows and a porch that looks like a raft. We see our bank accounts in the kind of bank that Sinkler describes, the banks where he can no longer work his con, as the bankers are on to him, being cons themselves. The chain gang, working out their time on the periphery of the story, is us, or someone we know, shackled to the time it’s going to take to work out a debt we didn’t realize we’d incurred.

    The grifter in question, the trusty, has a misplaced confidence in his rightful place in the world, and while he distracts us with his annoying chatter (some of it grifter speculation on whether or not to murder Lucy), we become more and more irritated with him. What gives the story its extra zing is the fairy-tale horror when the con finds himself in the woods with no way out, hearing his own grave being dug, and knowing he’ll never be found. That his nemesis is an 18 year old girl just adds to the zing. But the final brutality of it all is shocking. After all, he’s just a grifter…

    The reader is left unsettled. That they murder him for fifty dollars is repellent. Is this a habit with Chet and Lucy Sorrels – the entrapment, theft and murder of passers-by? Or is it a one-off, and will they bury the body, bury the memory, bury the impulse, and grow their family over it, like tangles of rhodendron? The gun, the axe: there is the odd feeling that the depression is wartime, that in the Sorrels’ mind, anything goes.

    Trusty-Trustee: who’s to be trusted? Not too long ago, the Boston Globe ran an article about the trustees who had been appointed by the probate court to distribute to intellectually disabled citizens the interest from their “trust” funds. In case after case, the trustees had stolen the disabled citizens’ money. In case after case, they got away with it.

    As I say, there is a twisty satisfaction in the Sorrels-Sinkler bout.

    So I agree, Trevor, this is an author worth pursuing. I’d like to see if his story collections build on their numbers to establish depth and complexity. Am wondering how the mix of irony and gothic will play out. Am wondering, given that this is Flannery O’Connor country, how an author stakes out his own territory after she’s been there. Will let you know.

  8. Jamie Yates says:

    I was less confused by the ending than I was by the story’s overall setting. It’s not that the Depression-era/grifter theme was “confusing,” but I kept wracking my brain, wondering whether or not I was missing a key metaphor. I wrote my own take on the story a few days ago (http://chicagoexpat.blogspot.com/2011/05/rash-conclusions.html), and “The Trusty” seems to be receiving more attention than usual for a given New Yorker story.

  9. jerry says:

    Very glad to see Rash make it into TNY as i enjoy his work. I recommend that you try One Foot in Eden which tells the story of a murder by five different narrators. I liked the story this week a great deal and found Sinkler a charming thief with too much conscience and that proves to be his undoing. Hope the magazine publishes more of his stuff.

  10. Betsy says:

    Thanks to Karen, I think, of A Just Recompense, for your nice words. And I agree with you about Trevor’s work. But how does he do it? Does he have a time machine? And an equali-check to keep the reading and writing so even and fair?

  11. Ken says:

    I’m puzzled by the overall positive tone of the above comments. This story, to me, was basically genre fiction and didn’t seem to have any of the subtext which is characteristic of literary fiction. Basically, this was almost all story/events with little in the way of themes or much character development beyond the rather predictable workings of a con man’s mind. The style is artless and prosaic. I found it enjoyable enough and the twist was good but it seemed like something one would read in a more popular magazine not the New Yorker (which is itself really slipping lately in its short fiction section what with lesser than average stories and so many excerpts from novels).

  12. Trevor says:

    It wasn’t my favorite story, Ken, though I liked it enough that I have Burning Bright on its way to me.

    I agree that what I got out of it, princpally, was an enjoyable story. I think Betsy’s comment above shows the story has at least a few talking points that are relevant for our time, and I think one can argue that we get a good sideways look at a strong female character. For me, those are more nice touches than something we can ruminate on forever. But I’m not sure it needs themes or a subtext to qualify as literary. I felt the setting and dialogue were very well done, the whole piece well written. Again, not a story that I can go on and on about in deep studies, but a good story (even literary, for its skillful writing, from my perspective), all the same.

  13. Betsy says:

    Ken, just want to disclose that the story had one appeal for me that probably wouldn’t obtain for most people. My dad was from Appalachia, and his family, his growing up, and his village have all always interested me greatly. So I am drawn to this story – despite the fact it bears no resemblance to my family’s experience. I want to know more about Ron Rash’s writing and the general progress of his writing; I’m interested to know what he thinks. That doesn’t address your issue at all – your issue of art.

    So – a question – of all the stories in the past 6 months or so, what is one you would value very highly?

  14. gatonegro says:

    I read the story last night and really enjoyed it, I´d like ti read more by this writer. very good.

  15. Aaron says:

    Ken, as usual, I’m very much in agreement with you. I’ll have my own thoughts up on my site later tonight, but yeah, this was genre fiction — and the second I realized that our “trusty” was a bit of a con man, I knew exactly where this story had to be going (the requisite twist).

    And yet, I’m in the enjoyed it for its entertainment camp; Rash writes well, his dialect and pacing gives me a good sense of the time (a lot of “grimy” words), and he focused (as Trevor points out) on an occupation I knew little about. All in all, a fine play on trust.

  16. Jerri says:

    I have a different read of “The Trusty”. Y’all are welcome to stop by & have a look at my take: http://www.readersquest.wordpress.com

  17. A marvelous story — I especially liked how Lucy’s profanity ominously hinted at her true nature — except for the last paragraph, which was compressed in detail to the point of being totally confusing. What actually happened at the end? Is the author trying for richness through ambiguity? (As Borges’s Pierre Menard, the fake author of the Quijote, says, “Ambiguity is richness.”) Ambiguity is not richness, it’s ambiguity. I wish the last paragraph was clear and wonderful like the rest of the story.

  18. Jerri says:

    @ thattherepaul – But it’s NOT ambiguous. The last paragraph has a symbolic meaning with deep religious roots. Divesting oneself of clothing is a Biblical gesture of humbling the self; when Sinkler chooses to remove the shirt to keep it from being bloodstained, so that Clem can wear it again, he is “clothing the naked” (Matt. 25:34-40). It’s a gesture that shows the reader that Sinkler has not only seen the error of his ways and repented – he is consciously choosing to follow the guidance of Jesus. He is aware of Lucy and Clem’s poverty and what has driven them to their desperate act…it’s a gesture of forgiveness and understanding and compassion for his killers. The last sentence shows us Sinkler taking the action of removing the shirt himself, before Lucy can order him to do it. In giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return (but a bullet in the head), he is committing the ultimate act of trust.

  19. Betsy says:

    Jerri, thanks for the tip about Ron Rash and Christian themes. Poetry Foundation says of him that his work is “Christ-haunted”. It goes on to say that “one of his favorite themes is the meeting of paganism and Christianity.” I did not know any of this when I read “The Trusty”, nor did I pick up on it. It’s a very odd context, isn’t it? But perhaps that just the point.

  20. Jerri says:

    Betsy: I’ll have to look up the Poetry Foundation comments – I just recently started reading Rash, and don’t know much about his background. Thanks for that insight! Since Rash(and I) are from a part of the country where you can never really avoid the many issues associated with religion, it seemed like a good bet that “The Trusty” might have a religious spin to it somehow. Once I re-read it with that idea in mind, stuff just leaped off the page and hit me over the head (which is about how religion was drilled into me as a kid anyway).

  21. Ken says:

    Betsy, Sorry I havent’ been on the site for a while. To answer your question, the story I’ve enjoyed the most in the past 6 months was “Naima” by Hisham Matar and also the story by Mary Gaitskill earlier in the year. Aaron, I agree the story is entertaining enough but I expect more from a New Yorker story. There are certainly times I want entertainment but then I find a novel much more fulfilling because you can truly become hooked into it and have the total immersion in narrative and suspense most characteristic of superior “entertainment.”

  22. Alba says:

    why did he go to jail again?

Leave a Reply