Chris Offutt’s short-story collection “Kentucky Straight” takes most of its readers into an unknown world, a world we may have glimpsed on in TV shows and our own prejudices of Appalachia. “Kentucky Straight” is set in the hills and hollows of Rocksalt, a fictional Appalachian town in eastern Kentucky.
The stories are stunning in their clarity and honesty. There are outlaw stories of course, but it’s the naturalness of the characters is that attraction, whether the people are criminals or law-abiding folks. In “The Leaving One”, a twelve-year-old’s innocence and, at the same time, his wariness at meeting his grandfather rings with authenticity. Nothing appears contrived. And the short story, by using this meeting as it’s starting point, gives us a beautifully written Boatman’s family history.
“Kentucky Straight” is not filled with trick or gotchas. Any twist that comes is the result of the environment and its people, not some gimmick by a cornered writer. Offutt builds a believable cast with no exploitation of stereotypes; his intent seems to be to praise the misunderstood Appalachian people with their exposed faults and their love of their families and the land. There is tragedy, of course; it’s everywhere in the shadows of the trees and hollows. In these nine stories, Offutt writes of a peoples’ perseverance which we shouldn’t confuse with resignation. Rather it’s a realization that this is their life, not for better or worse, their lives just are.