I interview Chris Offutt today and you can read that interview over at Do Some Damage.
Chris Offutt’s “Country Dark” could be the best of 2018. Yeah, there are many books I haven’t read yet and more still to be released, but, damn, “Country Dark” is outstanding. I finished reading “Country Dark” some three weeks ago, but it stays with me: the characters, the setting, and the story all stick with me like something you can’t get rid of, but, I want them all to stay.
“Country Dark” is broken into three sections: 1954, 1964 and 1971 with four or five chapters in each. In the first chapter, we meet Tucker, who goes by his surname only, not because of any predilection to standing out, no, because one name is all he needs. We meet Tucker as he returns home to Kentucky a modest hero with his medals on the bottom of his rucksack. “Country Dark” follows Tucker’s life from just a boy in ’54 to man in ’71.
There is a famous quote from Elmore Leonard that says that “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Not only does Offutt ignore this rule, he obliterates most of Leonard’s rules to the greatest of effect. I know some readers complain about reading “writing”, but I never felt that once while reading Offutt’s book. It’s the poetry of Offutt’s voice that moves the reader through “Country Dark”. I hope that this short excerpt displays the beauty of Offutt’s sentences and the power the words have to draw the reader in.
The sound of morning birds awoke Tucker early and he lay watching the sky change from indigo to pink to sheer light. He spent most of the day scouting his location. It was a good spot, safe and away from people, sheltered on high ground against rain. He could trap rabbits with a simple snare. He’d never eaten acorns but knew people had during the Depression. Families had fared better in the hills than elsewhere—they were already accustomed to living without much money and relying on the woods to get by.
Tucker filled his canteen at the creek and searched the bank until he found a turtle shell, bleached from the sun, the exterior panels of color having peeled away long ago. He slipped it in his ruck. He circled a limestone outcrop facing west, moving slowly and watching the brown rock mottled by sun. Late in the day he saw his prey—a heavy-bodied timber rattlesnake basking in the sun, docile as if it had recently come out of hibernation. Tucker counted eight rattles, which meant a young snake, maybe three years old.
Tucker withdrew his knife. He moved carefully, staying in the shade to prevent his shadow from falling over the snake. In a sudden motion, he stomped his boot just behind the snake’s head and chopped its head off. Tucker leaped back, watching the severed head. It twisted on the rock, opening and closing its jaws, still fighting in a way he admired. For a full five minutes the body coiled and uncoiled, the rattles clicking in the air.
Chris Offutt’s “Country Dark” is not a page-turner only because I wanted to remain on every page for as long as I could. In these days of binging TV shows and being bombarded by social media, “Country Dark” is an enjoyable slow read. When I finished Chris Offutt’s “Country Dark” there were tears in my eyes because I knew I’d never get the experience of reading it again for the first time.