“The Ascent,” a 2009 short story by Ron Rash, is, among other things, a devastating, incisive treatment of escapism. Initially, he portrays the tendency in its better aspects; he shows how daydreams are borne of a desire for better circumstances, and how they can lead one to formulate strategies—although some are follies—to improve one’s situation. But Rash is also concerned with escapism’s darker side, namely how one can use it to numb oneself to life’s stressful demands. And he takes his exploration of that darkness the distance: continually fleeing life’s realities can only take one into the permanence of death. It’s an effort that’s all the more impressive for the combination of social realism and poetic imagery used to develop it.
Jared, Rash’s protagonist, is a ten-year-old boy. He lives with his parents in North Carolina near the Tennessee border just outside the Great Smoky Mountains national park. An item in the news has caught his attention: authorities are searching for a missing small passenger plane that’s believed to have crashed in the area. Jared’s parents are poor, and he hates the shabbiness of their home, so on his first day of Christmas vacation, he sets out to find the missing plane.
Rash’s portrayal of the search is, on the first reading, quite charming. At ten, Jared is on the cusp of childhood’s end and adolescence’s beginning. He imagines he is searching for the plane with a girl in his class, explaining the animal tracks to her, helping her climb the ridges, and even using his pocketknife to successfully defend them from a bear attack. His daydreams about the girl are a first step in interest in the opposite sex, and the passages bring a smile to one’s face. It’s certainly not as big as the smile one has while reading the early Tom Sawyer-Becky Thatcher scenes in Mark Twain, but it’s there.
However, the appeal of these moments quickly gives way to dread—a shift in tone Rash seems to effortlessly handle. It isn’t long before Jared finds the plane and the corpses of the married couple who were flying it. He doesn’t do what one expects, which is to go back and to return to the plane with the authorities. Instead, he climbs in the back seat, closes the door behind him, and sits for a couple of hours lost in his thoughts. He only thinks of leaving when he notices the sun starting to go down, and he then does something appalling: he takes the woman’s gold-band diamond wedding ring and puts it in his pocket. His only thought is to give it to the girl in his class so she will like him.
It is obvious at this point that Jared is a very disturbed boy, and other details in the narrative begin to assert themselves. One is that he is out looking for the plane alone; he apparently has no friends. The other is the catalyst for his interest in the girl: she told him to his face that his clothes smelled bad. He is obviously withdrawn and ostracized by the other kids his age, and when he gets home Rash shows the source of his troubles. His parents are junkies who are celebrating the father’s latest paycheck by getting high. This immediately explains the poverty and Jared’s dissociation. It also implies an additional reason for his loneliness. His mother and father are so blatant about their drug use that they have their stash and paraphernalia in open view; if other parents even suspect what is going on, they’ll take every step they can to keep their kids from associating with Jared. The pathos of the boy’s circumstances only increases when the father discovers the ring, which he immediately takes to sell to buy more drugs. The mother and father’s addiction has so taken over the three’s lives that it even thwarts Jared’s fantasies of a different life.
The parents’ drug habit may be both the impetus and dead-end wall for Jared’s daydreams, but Rash clearly intends for the addiction and fantasies to be seen as two sides of the same coin. Both are the place to run when the real world gets to be too much. The problems that led the parents to drugs are never explained, but they’re not hard to imagine, such as the financial inability to set up a proper household in which to raise a child, or even being just generally overwhelmed by adult responsibilities. In any case, the parents are shown as so far gone that drugs are all that really matter to them now. Everything else, such as building a home or raising their son, has become a peripheral matter. As for Jared, he wants the edification of the one thing about himself in which he finds confidence: his ability to easily make his way through the woods. He imagines the girl at school to be in awe of his competence because it’s a salve for how she rubbed his nose in his humiliating circumstances. She reminded him of his sense of inadequacy. His discovery of the plane is the ultimate proof of his ability; in finding it, he managed what the authorities, with all of their resources and fancy helicopters and whatnot, could not do. The plane becomes to him what the drugs are to his parents: a place to escape that he never wants to leave, and to which he always longs to return.
Rash emphasizes this last point with a key trope. He creates a metonymy for Jared’s pride in having found the plane: the blueness of the sky when the discovery was made. That blueness is as representative of Jared’s high as his parents’ glazed eyes are of theirs. The equivalency of the two is made clear in a key passage from the morning after Jared finds the plane and his father takes the ring:
Jared ate as his parents sat in the front room passing the pipe back and forth. He looked out the window and saw the sky held nothing but blue, not even a few white clouds. He wanted to go back to the plane […]
The parents have their escape, and all Jared can think of is returning to his.
Most hauntingly, Rash uses the sky trope to signify the downward spiral of both Jared and his parents. The parents go on a binge with the money they get from the sale of the ring, and the comedown (or hangover or whatever it’s called for drug users) is rough going. It’s difficult for Jared to react to, and the high of discovering the plane is no longer a high; it’s now his only means of escape. His desperation is reflected in the changed appearance of the sky, which Rash describes as “gray, darker clouds farther west.” And Jared is all alone, even in his fantasies; he now sees himself on a mission too dangerous for the girl from his school to accompany him. He then does something to enable his parents’ drug habit even further. It’s only fitting; they pushed him into the escape of daydreams, and now he allows them to escape their comedown/hangover with even more drugs. The sky when Jared returns to the plane a third time at the story’s end is all snow. Rash strongly suggests that the parents are heading towards a fatal overdose, and, in a remarkably poetic passage, he indicates that Jared is equally doomed in treating the plane as his relief. The snow—which may also function as a trope for the parents’ drugs—overwhelms everything until one can no longer feel the cold. The only consolation is that everyone is numb inside the vehicles of their escape.
The dynamic between the social-realist milieu and the poetic imagery used to progress the story is what gives “The Ascent” a good deal of its power. Rash not only has to dramatize the tragic descent into an escapist mindset, he has to keep the reader at enough of a distance so one fully understands what is going on. The images—the sky and the snow, the plane, the parents’ drug pipe—all of them exist as themselves and as tropes for Jared’s thoughts. The changes in those tropes are used to signify the changes in his thinking, particularly his need to indulge in the narcotic of his own. The development of the imagery has a distinct dramatic momentum. Rash not only draws a sharp equivalency between daydreams and intoxicants—both can be fatal if one goes too far with them—he also takes one inside the pathos of falling in such a way. The story’s effect is rather ironic; Rash shows characters imprisoning and destroying themselves in numbness, yet it is that numbness that moves the reader to pity and even tears.
”The Ascent” was originally published in Tin House 39. It is also included in Ron Rash’s short-story collection Burning Bright, as well as The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor.