This the last Chris Offutt book review for a while. Over the last week, I’ve reviewed his latest novel, “Country Dark“, and his short story collections, “Kentucky Straight” and “Out of the Woods“. I also had an interview with Offutt published on Do Some Damage. I came across his first novel “The Good Brother”, published in 1997, as I was researching Offutt for the interview. This being the internet age, getting ahold of a physical copy of “The Good Brother” was not a problem.
If you are a fan of his two short story collections then convincing you to buy and read “The Good Brother” should not be much of a twist. The book opens with Virgil Caudill, a thirty-something single man living on land adjacent Mama’s property. He’s walking the two miles from his holler to the post office which is much the center of town. Obviously, the post office is where everyone picks up their mail but it is also a place where folks from around Blizzard gather to catch up on the local news as well as to purchase postal orders. The not-so-secret in Blizzard regards the death of Virgil’s older brother several months before: who killed Beau and when was Virgil going to put a bullet in Billy Rodale.
On the surface, “The Good Brother” is a simple tale of revenge and its ramifications. At its heart, Offutt has written a working-class novel featuring a man consigned to the fact that he had lived his thirty-two years in the county and he’d most likely die in the same mountains of Kentucky and, with all that, the expectations on what Virgil’s response to Boyd’s death will be. “The Good Brother” is two books: the revenge chapters and the ramification chapters. Like Offutt’s first short story collection, “Kentucky Straight”, the revenge chapters all take place in Kentucky. The ramification section takes place outside of Kentucky as did Offutt’ssecond short story collection, “Out of the Woods” (2000).
Though Virgil prefers to be alone, there are powerful conversations throughout “The Good Brother” between Virgil and other people. At the beginning of the book, we follow Virgil through his workday. Offutt captures the camaraderie of men full of the boring day-to-day drudgeries and the small moments of sarcasm, wit, and childishness.
Rundell had run the garbage crew for twenty-three years and divided all aspects of the work equally. Four men could fit in the cab of the truck, and each week they rotated among driver, cabman, outside man, and gearshift man. Rundell was set to retire in a year and he’d marked Virgil as his successor.
“Where’s Taylor at?” Virgil said.
“Ain’t here yet,” Dewey said.
“I can see that. But is he on the job?”
“Well.” Dewey gave him a sly look. “His card got punched.”
“Then we got to wait on that sorry son of a bitch.”
“He’ll be here.”
“Now I ain’t trying to tell you what to do, Dewey,” Rundell said. “But you’d best watch punching him in that way. If you know he’s coming late, it ain’t nothing. But that Taylor, he’s likely to be in the jailhouse as in the bed. Get caught fooling with his card and you’re out of a job. I’ve seen it happen, boys. More than once.”
Across the back of the lot, Taylor came slipping through the gate.
Offutt’s prose is equally up to the task, part poetry but it never shirks the ability to move the story along.
He parked by the edge of the cliff. The color of the air was brighter at the top. Clay Creek ran through the hollow with purple milkweed blooming in the ditch. When Virgil was a kid, he and his brother had walked its slippery bank, gathering enough empty pop bottles to buy candy when they reached Blizzard’s only store. Virgil wished he and Boyd could do it again but people had stopped throwing pop bottles away when the deposit rose to a nickel. The store closed when the owner died. Boyd was dead now, too.
Virgil tried to imagine the land when it was flat across the hilltops, before a million years of rain chewed the dirt to make creeks and hollows. Clouds lay in heaps like sawdust piles. He figured he was seeing out of the county and he wondered if hawks could see farther, or just better. The world seemed smaller from above. The dips and folds of the wooded hills reminded him of a rumpled quilt that needed smoothing out.
I included these are rather long excerpts as to make evident the beauty of Offutt’s writing. The storytelling is there, but it is the construction of each sentence that shimmers in black intensity on the faded white pages of “The Good Brother”. Offutt’s first novel is as good as it gets and if you haven’t read it already you should plan on doing so soon. And remember not to lose sight “Country Dark”.