If you ask why there was so much fanfare for the arrival of his first book of fiction in nearly two decades, Chris Offutt might tell you it was a good marketing plan. The last thing he would tell you is that, for fans of his work, new fiction from him was nothing short of an event.
The recent offering, Country Dark, a novel set in Eastern Kentucky, is not one that will disappoint those seeking a good crime story with heart. The story follows Tucker from his time returning to Kentucky having just finished his stint in the Korean War, to a middle age man and father of five shuttling liquor for the regional shine king Beanpole. Along for the ride is his wife Rhonda and daughter Jo, the only one of the five children not born with a deformity or malady of some kind. In the midst of this, Tucker and Rhonda are doing whatever they must to survive. And so the scene is set for what evolves into both a grim treatment and one with enormous heart.
In particular, Offutt seems to work best when presenting the gray areas of his characters — not all good, not all bad. This is the case with Tucker, a man of principle and honor, aware of dignity and how to keep it, but also capable of instant and irrevocable violence. Tucker’s dedication to his family, the lengths he goes to and what he ultimately endures for a portion of the novel, shows evidence of this. And this character trait is one that many people in Eastern Kentucky have. Offutt is at his best when working with the people he knows best. Take the voice in this for example from an early conversation between Tucker and Rhonda:
‘That’d be worse. You could stay with my other sister, but you’d not like her.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Nobody does, not even her husband and kids.’
‘She’s like a blue jay. Pretty to look at but loud and mean.’
And then the absolute marrow-deep understanding of Appalachian people in this exchange been Hattie, a state child services worker and her city-slick boss:
‘More than one way to get answers,’ Hattie said. ‘Let me tell you something. You ask yes-or-no questions and you won’t get anything. Folks around here don’t think that way. A yes-or-no question will make them think there’s a right answer and a wrong one. They won’t speak because they don’t want to make a mistake.’
The novel, as I mentioned, is a good crime story with heart. It’s the heart that is most pronounced, though, which is, in its own right, a major accomplishment. It’s so easy to slip into tropes when writing a narrative in which violence plays a key role, but Offutt keeps his pulse on what each of the characters are experiencing in a human way – from an ancient midwife wondering lost in the dark woods to the shine runner himself having a peaceful, normal breakfast with his devoted wife. Each character has that essential need of something, a desire, that brings them to the foreground, even beyond the point of the narrative itself. For instance, we already have an idea of Tucker as a man willing to defend what is his and a good husband. But, Offutt, seeing the chance to show us yet another dimension of Tucker’s character, his being a good father, takes the opportunity to do so in the most poignant but unsentimental ways possible. The section comes as Tucker is saying goodnight to his son Big Billy, perhaps the most afflicted of his five children.
‘Son, I’m getting plumb wore down from the past week and have to hit the sack here in a minute. But they’s one more thing I been meaning to tell you…’
He goes on to tell of how smart squirrels are through a story recalling their habit and peculiar ways of getting to the meat of acorns before finishing with this:
‘And right now, up in some oak tree in the woods, they’s a daddy squirrel telling his boy how to do it. Same as me and you. Daddy loves you, Big Billy. Daddy loves you.’
For his return to fiction, Offutt made good on his promise to write about his homeland of Eastern Kentucky and in the only way it can be done well — by keeping the heart of his characters fresh in the reader’s mind. Along the way there are several plot turns that are often the highlight of Offutt’s creative powers: old men holding others at gunpoint only to reveal it as a strange joke, henchmen who begin as hard cases only to become pitiful in their servitude, and killers as kind of thoughtful as any of the stained glass saints. These are moves only Chris Offutt could make in a book, and he makes them as clearly and purely as high-test shine.