When Jacob Hampton returns home wounded from the Korean War, his parents couldn’t be happier. Before his conscription, they had disinherited him for marrying a poor, uneducated hotel maid who became pregnant soon after their elopement. Now that Jacob has come home, “They believed him ready at last to be their prodigal son,” writes Ron Rash in his stellar novel, The Caretaker. Jacob, however, quickly informs them, “I’m only here for my truck.”
A PEN/Faulkner finalist and three-time recipient of the O. Henry Prize, Rash writes about the North Carolina mountains and their inhabitants with exceptional beauty and grace. In The Caretaker, he has created a Shakespearian plot so riveting that it begs to be read in one sitting. An exceptional storyteller, Rash sets up an explosive standoff between Jacob and his parents from the start, then quickly sets into motion a jaw-dropping turn of events.
Rounding out the cast are Jacob’s wife, Naomi, who yearns for her husband’s return, dreams of their future, and is desperately trying to improve her third-grade reading skills as she writes to him. She is looked after by Jacob’s best friend, Blackburn Gant, who lives in a shack on the cemetery grounds, where he works as caretaker. He finds tending to the dead easier than dealing with the living, who are often repulsed by his limp and disfigured face, a remnant of polio.
Rash’s prose is spare, yet piercingly sharp, whether writing about a gathering of men at the Hampton family country store or Jacob’s life-and-death battle with a North Korean soldier. Like Richard Russo, he’s a narrative maestro who creates entire communities, giving brief but meaningful backstories to characters big and small, including the town doctor, the girl whom Jacob’s parents want him to marry, and the man in charge of receiving and delivering telegrams.
Readers will likely find themselves galloping toward the end of this novel, but should be sure to stop to appreciate its quieter moments, such as when Naomi reflects on the often-extraordinary beauty of an entirely ordinary day: “Maybe that was the saddest thing about life, that you couldn’t understand, not really, how good something was while living inside of it. How many such moments swept past, lost forever.” The Caretaker is an unforgettable novel of class, power, war, family, yearning and betrayal. Don’t miss it.