Author: Chris Offutt
Publisher: Grove Press
Price: $24.00 (Hardcover)
Chris Offutt has been writing for a while and has a considerable reputation as a chronicler of life in eastern Kentucky.
His story collections “Kentucky Straight” and “Out of the Woods” appeared in 1992 and 1999; his latest memoir, the very odd "My Father the Pornographer" was published in 2016.
He has not published a novel since “The Good Brother” in 1997, almost 20 years ago, so there has been anticipation about this new book, “Country Dark.”
For those fans who were waiting, it is worth the wait.
A powerful novel, “Country Dark” is, obviously, noir, a dark vision of human existence, but in no way "depressing." It depicts a violent world, but the violence is not the violence of torture or sadism. It is, in a bizarre way, called for: violence in the service of traditional, almost romantic virtue.
“Country Dark” is authentic in setting--the "hollers" of eastern Kentucky, but not just dressed up with collard greens and dream catchers. "Country Dark" in its rural rawness will remind readers of early Cormac McCarthy in such books as "Suttree" or "Child of God," or the late William Gay in fiction such as "The Long Home" or "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down."
The protagonist, a hero to be sure, is Tucker. Not yet 18 years old, he is returning in 1954 from the Korean War. (He had lied about his age.)
Tucker is walking the last 100 miles, carrying a rucksack with "the eleven medals he had received in the bottom of it," a canteen, and his Ka-Bar combat knife. Tucker feels good, and at nightfall, when it becomes "...country dark" and he can see the stars, "he closed his eyes, feeling safe."
Korea had been rough. In a special unit, often behind enemy lines, many of his comrades were lost, but Tucker, who is only 5’ 5 and ¼”, "shot quicker. In hand-to-hand combat, he struck first."
Tucker in the woods will remind readers of Hemingway's Nick Adams in "Big Two-Hearted River," and there are parallels: Both young men are returning from war with jangled nerves. Both are soothed by the security the calm woods give.
But humans intrude, as they always do, and Tucker finds himself saving a damsel in distress, Rhonda, a 14-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by her uncle. He's outweighed by 50 pounds, but Tucker is explosive, frighteningly feral. Tucker hits Uncle Boot twice in the head with a rock. It is as primitive as one can imagine. Mercifully he decides not to kill Uncle Boot.
Since Rhonda and Tucker spend the night together, these babies feel they should marry and they do, for life. They live quietly in a hollow, and are poor, but they manage and have no connection with society's institutions.
Although he does not drink himself, Tucker's job is to run liquor to and from Ohio.
They have children, born, sadly, with birth defects, but Tucker and Rhonda mean to care for them at home.
When the state tries to interfere, primal feelings are aroused. Violence to protect his family, as Tucker sees it, is no vice.
Uncle Boot had said Tucker "was crazy as a rat in a coffee can," but he's not crazy. He is a throwback to an absolute self-reliance. He does what he thinks is fair and right and heaven help those who mean to take advantage.
Although he is no Hindu, Tucker will not heedlessly kill a katydid that lands on his arm. "He admired its silky green body, serrated legs, and delicate wings." Then, "Tucker nudged it away." He will not exterminate a hornet's nest; he moves it. Hornets have a right to live, too.
Tucker means to survive and he does, in the hollow and in prison where bikers, The Dayton Satans, try three times to kill him. Half of them were "crazy as a soup sandwich."
The language! Offutt's writing is fresh with expressions I had not seen even after a half century of reading Southern literature. Here are some more printable examples.
Chester, a blowhard, is "all hole and no coal.” Hattie, a social worker—and a good one—is ill: "her head hurt like a hog bite."
The BC Powder she takes in water is "bitter as a peach pit.” “Hattie felt like a cat with a hair ball the size of a pinecone."
Beanpole, the 350-pound bootlegger, sits on the porch "with no more care than a bluebird in a bush.” He pats his belly and says "This here ain't fat, it's a shed for my tool." His wife Angela's patience "could grind a man down sure as sandy water."
When Rhonda is sad "she looked like she's been sent for and couldn't come, got there and wasn't wanted."
In way, Tucker and Rhonda are Adam and Eve in their mountain Eden. Undisturbed, they will care for their own. Interfered with, atavistic fury is unleashed.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.