All the regular caveats and such. You’ll notice several short story collections and two books from 2017 I finally caught up with. But first, the Book of the Year.
The rest of the Best listed alphabetically.
Here are some books from 2018 that are worthy of your money as well and, again, listed in no particular order: “Know Me From Smoke” by Matt Phillips, “Welcome to HolyHell” by Math Bird, “The Science of Paul” by Aaron Philip Clark, “Fast Bang Booze” by Lawrence Maddox, “Down the River Unto The Sea” by Walter Mosley, “Accidental Outlaws” by Matt Phillips, “May” by Marietta Miles, “Knuckledragger” by Rusty Barnes, and “Breaking Glass” by Alec Cizak.
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”.
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.
While Chris Offutt’s “Kentucky Straight” focuses on people living in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Offutt’s second short story collection, “Out of the Woods”, tells the tales of those who have escaped. The use of escaped isn’t a knock on Appalachia, rather it is just a reflection of how things are. Look at your hometown, look at your life and those around you, how many of them (even you) wished to escape to somewhere else.
The eight stories that comprise “Out of the Woods” are about a people that yearn to return, those that miss it, and those that are gone for good. In the eponymous story, the Gowan brothers send their new brother-in-law out to Kansas to fetch their brother who has been shot. “The Melungeons” tells the tale of one of the few recognized multi-racial groups in the United States and specifically the story of two men, one who left the hills only to return and another who remained to become the law.
Offutt tells stories with tales of desperation and want–sometimes like in “Barred Owl” what they want is simply Kentucky. The short stories of “Out of the Woods” are much darker and troubling that those of “Kentucky Straight”. I recommend you read them both, but if you had to read one, read “Out of the Woods”.
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.