Country Darkby Chris Offutt Published 10 Apr 2018
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Tucker, a young veteran, returns from war to work for a bootlegger. He falls in love and starts a family, and while the Tuckers don’t have much, they have the love of their home and each other. But when his family is threatened, Tucker is pushed into violence, which changes everything. The story of people living off the land and by their wits in a backwoods Kentucky world of shine-runners and laborers whose social codes are every bit as nuanced as the British aristocracy, Country Dark is a novel that blends the best of Larry Brown and James M. Cain, with a noose tightening evermore around a man who just wants to protect those he loves. It reintroduces the vital and absolutely distinct voice of Chris Offutt, a voice we’ve been missing for years.
Chris Offutt is an outstanding literary talent, whose work has been called “lean and brilliant” (New York Times Book Review) and compared by reviewers to Tobias Wolff, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver. He’s been awarded the Whiting Writers Award for Fiction/Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, among numerous other honors. His first work of fiction in nearly two decades, Country Dark, is a taut, compelling novel set in rural Kentucky from the Korean War to 1970.
"Country Dark" Reviews
He’s on his way home from the Korean War. She has just escaped being raped, saved by him . He’s nearly eighteen and she’s nearly fifteen, both so innocent and yet knowing about life in some ways. Tucker and Rhonda decide to marry less than a day after they met. The sparse quiet writing appealed to me from the beginning with simple phrasing full of descriptions that let you see the landscape on this road home to Kentucky as well as understand what these characters are feeling. Fast forward ten years and they still love each other and their children even though they struggle with physical and developmental issues with four of their five children. To provide for his family Tucker is a shine runner bringing danger that changes their lives.
While this is very much about place, the back woods of Kentucky, it is primarily a character study. I don’t remember the last time I was as torn over a character as I was about Tucker. It’s hard to condone the things he does, yet I found it impossible to wholeheartedly condemn him. Impossible because he loves his family so deeply. I choked up as he talks to his crib-ridden 9 year old son, Big Billy, about how he would one day teach him to fish and over the conversation he has with his daughter Jo sharing his special, quiet place for her to have when he’s gone. It’s dark and violent in places, creating a tension because it is also a story filled with much love. For more details on the plot, the book description as well as some other reviews can provide those.
There’s an epilogue that may have readers wondering if the story would have had a greater impact without it. I loved it. So many times I’ve been left wondering what happened to characters that I came to care about. I was glad to know what happened to their daughter Jo, perhaps my favorite character. For me it also served to emphasize further the moral dilemma that the reader faces, which is so central to the story. While they are very different stories, I had the same feelings at the end of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake. I will definitely look further at other novels by Offutt.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Grove Press through Edelweiss.
Country Dark by Chris Offutt is a 2018 Grove Press publication.
An insane blend of Hardboiled Southern Gothic Noir-
“The sky stretched black in every direction. Clouds blocked the stars, lending an unfathomable depth to the air. The tree line was gone and hilltops blended with the black tapestry of night. It was country dark”
1954- Rural Kentucky-
Tucker returns to the states after serving in the Korean War. With those demons still haunting his dreams, he soon faces more trouble after confronting a would be rapist and saving a teenage girl in the process. He and the girl, Rhonda, fall in love and marry, while Tucker runs moonshine to provide for his increasing family. To complicate his hard living ways, all his children, save one, are born with severe handicaps which led the ‘state’ aka- social services- to pay a visit.
While Tucker is gentle, loyal, and true to Rhonda, and his children, he has a violent side- one that emerges profoundly when his family is threatened, showing different sides and complexities to the man and the underside of Kentucky from the mid-fifties through the early seventies.
“People don’t know they’re lucky till the bad luck comes along”
Some literary works are eloquently written, steeped in allegory or symbolism, the authors lauded for their vivid prose, but many times it’s the stark, lean prose that packs the most powerful punch.
Chris Offutt delivers a sparing, yet equally eloquent, and impressive piece of Southern Gothic fiction.
The various contrasts are striking, with deep character examinations. Tucker is where our attention is the most riveted, with Rhonda and his family being the catalyst for the choices he makes. His love is what necessitates the violence, the driving force that makes him a survivor. The story is dark, moody, and thought provoking, very authentic and realistic. ‘The Hollers’, Tucker and his family will stick with you long after you turn the final page.
I don't blame Rhonda one little bit for falling in love with Tucker right off. So did I. Tucker was a smart guy in the only way it really matters; knowing how to take care of himself and the ones who mattered to him. I never worried about Tucker, even when he got into bad situations, because I knew he would figure things out.
Chris Offutt has written a book about a superhero in disguise as a young veteran of the Korean War who becomes a bootleg runner. Because he is slight of stature and an uneducated backwoodsman, he is underestimated by anyone who doesn't know him, and even some who do. Tangling with Tucker is never a good idea.
5 stars for the story, 5 stars for the characters, 5 stars for the language. His people speak like I do. They "purely despise" certain things, say warsh instead of wash, and believe that cats have no place around babies because they will suck their breath out. No argument there. And another 5 stars for the humor running through every sentence and paragraph, if you know how to look for it.
I guess that makes Chris Offutt a superhero disguised as an author, with his super power being the ability to turn this novel into an unforgettable book for me. On my favorites list.
A book that couldn't have been written by anyone else. These pages sing with authenticity down to the details of cold spring water in enameled tin cups.
As I read, I was reminded of something I heard an old timer say once about the poverty of mountain people. She said, "We ain't know we was poor till the government come in here and told us we was." There's a passage in this novel where a social worker is trying to explain to her asshole boss why he can't ask yes or no questions, him having just asked a little girl he's never met whether or not her father is working.
The social worker says, "Let me tell you something. You ask yes-or-no questions and you won't get anything. Folks around here don't think that way. A yes-or-no question will make them think there's a right answer and a wrong one. They won't speak because they don't want to make a mistake."
"How is being honest a mistake?"
"When the asker has an agenda. The police do that. Teachers and doctors, too. Now you're doing it. I don't, and that's why they trust me. I know you're my boss, Dr. Miller, but things in the hills aren't that simple--who's boss and who's not. If somebody's working or not, if a little girl is happy or sad. It's not black and white here. It's all gray."
This is the type of detail outsiders get wrong when they try to write about this place. Appalachia is not a trope, and it's tiring to keep reading shitty books by shitty writers who aren't from these mountains and have never lived in these mountains and who set a story here just because they think it'll sell. Chris got these details right because he knows this place and he knows these people. As hard as part of this story is, he got to the humanity of it and that's all anyone can ask.
Wow, che bella scoperta Chris Offutt - non mia, che pure lo tenevo d’occhio dalla pubblicazione dei racconti Nelle terre di nessuno - ma che bella scoperta leggerlo senza saperne nulla e trovarsi catapultata in Kentucky in una storia che passando per la guerra di Corea e il contrabbando di whisky, in fondo, vuole raccontare solo di famiglia e miseria e di tutto quello che un uomo e una donna, un padre e una madre, sarebbero capaci di fare per metterla al sicuro.
Ma è una storia nera, anche se la natura è verde, fitta, piena di fruscii e di scoiattoli e serpenti e le descrizioni incantevoli, una storia nerissima, una di quelle in cui, per avere salva la pelle, è sempre opportuno avere una pistola nascosta nella manica o un coltello affilato da estrarre e usare senza pensarci troppo sopra.
E Rhonda e Tucker, i due protagonisti quasi bambini che la attraversano nell’arco di quasi vent’anni, non sono altro che due angeli neri uniti in un abbraccio così forte da essere capace di farli volare.
Genre: Literary Southern Gothic
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Pub. Date: April 10, 2018
Literary Southern Gothic is a new genre for me. I have always enjoyed a good Gothic read, but had no idea what Southern Gothic meant? So, I googled, and learned that it’s not Southern vampires (or at least not in literary southern gothic, though I’m sure that’s out there too). To my surprise, the books in this genre include: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and, “A Streetcar Named Desire”— well actually, just about all of Tennessee Williams’ work. This means it is some of my favorite books that became some of my favorite movies. So I am guessing that a story is of this classification as long as the setting is in the South, and the story contains violence, poverty, social issues, romance and a hint of noir.
I was expecting a stellar read since the author, Chris Offutt, has been awarded the Whiting Writers Award for Fiction/Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, among numerous other honors. And, a tense and atmospheric stellar read is what I got. It is written dark and taut and set in rural mid-century Kentucky. The protagonist is a husband and father who would do whatever it takes including murder, to keep, to his family housed, fed, safe and most importantly all together. At times, the protagonist reminds me of some city gang member from the TV show “The Wire,” fierce and shrewd, except our man’s evenings are not lit up with streetlights. His nighttime is mountain hollers dark. And, rather than city slang, his words are in Kentucky-speak.
We meet him when he is returning home from the Korean War covered in metals. The boy can shoot. He meets his future wife while she is about to be raped by her uncle, who is the local sheriff. She is fourteen-years-old, and he is eighteen-years-old. He rescues the girl, and she asks him not to kill her attacker since he is kin (that just about sums up the people who live in the hollers—if you are one who possesses Appalachian morals). This is the beginning of one of the toughest, yet sweetest love stories that I have ever read. They marry and have a bunch of kids. He makes a living by running moonshine. They need more than most since four of their six children were born with disabilities. The first thing the country smart, female social worker did was make sure there wasn’t any interbreeding. There wasn’t. Since there are no signs of abuse, this caseworker does what she can to help them. The not-so-country smart, male caseworker wants to put their disabled children in homes. Both mother and father are devoted parents. You can guess what happens here, which is the start of even more hardship for the family. Although he is meaner than a rattlesnake, and she is tougher than nails, both manage to hold on to their human decency, which I am not sure many could do while living in such dire conditions. You will root for this family that has underdog charm.
The story actually begins about here and this is all you should know for fear of spoilers. I will share that Offutt routinely shifts points of view, feelings, and tones within tense. The writing can be as playful as it is brutal, which can take you by surprise. Will this novel become a classic such as, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” or “To Kill a Mocking Bird?” I doubt it. It’s missing what can be found in the other books: The racial southern tension with good trying it’s best to triumph. Is “Dark Country” a spellbinding read that you will not soon forget? The answer to this question is most certainly yes.
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