All of Chris Offutt’s strengths are on display in “Country Dark”, the Kentucky native’s long awaited return to the novel. From the opening, Offutt takes the reader on an unpredictable mythic journey.
Offutt’s unique and varied career has led from the publication of his first story collection, “Kentucky Straight” in 1992, on through to a memoir about Rowan County, a comic book with Michael Chabon, screenplays for True Blood and Weeds, and now his second novel.
It’s rewarding as a reader to come across a true writing gem. I’ve personally pursued a varied reading list in recent months, from the stylistic refinement of Claire Messud’s two popular novels, “The Last Life” and “The Emperor’s Children”, to several novels by emerging writers, complete with their wandering habits and forced turns of phrase.
So it was surprising, to say the least, how effortlessly I breezed through Offutt’s novel about a Korean War veteran returning to his Kentucky home place. The sustained excellence of the prose is reminiscent of my experience reading “Blood Meridian”, and that is not praise I offer lightly.
From the opening, our hero, Tucker, is travelling on foot across rural Kentucky. He ditched the train, having grown tired of the bravado and chaos of the soldiers returning home, and experiences the natural beauty of his home state first hand. A refreshing change from the Korean battle zone.
Offutt spends some time immersing the reader in the natural landscape, but it is never overdone. This is a skill Offutt repeats time and again throughout the narrative.
Tucker is a hardscrabble young man, evidenced by his desire to get further off the worn path, traversing the Kentucky hillsides, sleeping in the open, finding shelter from a storm. About the time he eats a snake for dinner and swims as naked as Adam in a fresh country pond, the reader may start to wonder just where the story is going.
Things change suddenly when Tucker confronts a moment of violence that forever changes his life. Along the way, he meets up with a young woman, Rhonda, who will become his wife as the novel progresses.
The story of Tucker and Rhonda hints at archetypal Greek mythology, from the wandering challenges of Jason or Odysseus, to the gut-wrenching tragedy of Medea, but never does Offutt’s telling of the story become trite. Indeed, it is the writing itself, and the timely placement of action-reaction-consequence, which makes the novel an excellent read.
The author places just enough hints of side or back-story to keep the reader moving, but never does Offutt get lost. Much like Homer, he keeps our hero moving forward, with the reader having to guess the final reward. Side characters such as a country nurse facing sexist violence or a buffoon character trying to be taken seriously for his braggadocio entertain without displacing one’s focus.
The novel is broken into several time periods that progress across decades, but never do we lose touch with Tucker’s drive to do what’s right within the context of his reality. Yes, he runs moonshine for what amounts to a crime lord. Yes, he kills and does time and kills again, but he loves his troubled children and his suffering wife and the life he’s been burdened with, unquestionably.
In the end, however, it’s Offutt’s writing skill that carries the fiction. He breaks just enough narrative rules to prove to the reader that he knows them. He moves effortlessly in cinematic style from one point of view to another, but never displaces Tucker as the center of attention. Indeed, I found it refreshing to know, exactly, what another character in a scene was thinking and as a reader had no trouble moving back and forth across mindsets.
Offutt’s use of lyrical imagery combined with current thematic notions of misuse of power, mental illness and extreme poverty will keep any reader engaged in this tightly constructed story.