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
A decorated war hero, Tucker is returning home to Kentucky. He doesn't think much of the medals he was awarded in the Korean War, he was only using the skills honed as a youth in the mountains. Living off the land during his journey home, catching rides when he could, he stumbles upon Rhoda, a 15-year-old mountain girl being molested by her uncle. After saving Rhoda, he purchases the uncle's car, and the two get married at the courthouse. The two want children but a family needs a working father. Luckily the car that he purchased, has been refitted for running moonshine. Thus begins his lucrative career working for Beanpole.
The novel's title is appropriate since this novel is an excellent example of Southern gothic and noir-fiction. The taciturn protagonist reminds me of several of the characters played by a younger Clint Eastwood in that he is an amalgam of good and evil. He is very protective of his family taking only the minimal means necessary to ensure their safety. His actions are motivated by a personal sense of justice; not revenge. The author was very effective in bringing alive mountain life in 1950-60s Kentucky.
Books like Country Dark by Chris Offutt are often described as "country noir" or "Southern noir," which to this reader typically means a novel that is lean, mean, dark and where almost all characters end up in bad places.
Country Dark does not disappoint. The story is about a very, very young Korean War veteran and his return to rural Kentucky. Tucker is a young man that has seen and done things putting him on the path his return finds him upon. While trying to just simply exist, Tucker's travels and encounters with others soon embroil him into situations he didn't ask for and leads him to a life he did not anticipate. Further details will not be described to avoid spoilers.
Like so many excellent Southern writers, Offutt's descriptive writing is expansive while being lean in word count. His tale is filled with wonder and hardship and his characters ring true as developed.
So often in noir style storytelling, most likely related to societal mores of the 40's and 50's and demands of just desserts of these mores, main protagonists, while often sympathetic, always seem to meet their demise because of their behavior. Due to this, while reading this novel, this reader's attempt at predicting where at least three plot threads were headed turned out refreshingly incorrect.
This added greatly to the pleasure of the novel with an ending that was not contrived or unbelievably insincere.
Highly recommended to those that enjoy Southern writing, noir, and writers such as Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, Larry Brown, Ron Rash, David Joy, Tom Franklin and so many others.
Despite him murdering two men in cold blood, they all lived happily ever after up in the holler in the woods. Tucker was too perfect to be believable, but some of the descriptions of the countryside were truly lovely. Points given for a snake-killing Jack Russell terrier, a pot bellied character called Beanpole, and authentic hill dialect. Started out well but fell short with too many country sayings repeatedly jammed in - like four pigs in a poke where nigh just two woulda done.
By coincidence, while having downloaded this ebook from the library, I also added an audio-book called Gods of Howl Mountain. I enjoy Southern Lit and thought having two simultaneous reads set in the mountains of Appalachia would compliment the mood. Oddly enough, both books' protagonist is a young veteran of the Korean War, come home to few good jobs in the hills other than driving a hot rod to deliver moonshine. A granny woman figures into both stories. We bump into love-at-first-site with a country gal whose daddy is a bad guy. There are scrapes with the law, and a character in one book is missing an eye while one in the other's missing a leg.
It was as if both writers went to a workshop where they were assigned these characters and challenged to a race. Both books got published in March and April of 2018. It was impossible for me to not compare the writing. That said, the jam-packed country clichés here and the abrupt ending would have disappointed me regardless after Country Dark's nice start.
If you're up for a great Appalachian story, I'd pick the other book.
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.
No false advertising: I grew up in the same community the protagonist (Tucker) lived in. As did the author, my brother.
It's hard for me to put into words what goes through my mind and heart when I read this. Everything is so familiar and so right. The scenery, the people, the values, the relationships, and the way they all interact is comforting in an odd way. It's as if it all fits together in "like it should." Like looking at a green forest and my eyes fully relax, or sitting in my favorite chair that fits my body perfectly.
That's partly because I'm from there. But largely because Country Dark perfectly captures essential things about Appalachia.
Tucker reminds me of people I know, but is clearly not a copy of a single individual. He is a vet (lots of vets in eastern KY), very competent, and has a lot of intelligence and knowledge without much formal education.
It bugs me that people don't distinguish between Appalachia and the South. I've lived in both and know they're very different. This book is not about the south ... it's about Appalachia.
American Nations, by Colin Woodard, models north America as having 11 "nations" that have distinct cultures, values, and history. I thought the distinction was fascinating and has a lot of truth. And it explains the difference between the south and Appalachia very well.
Country Dark brings up troublesome questions. Was it a justified killing? Definitely illegal, but justified and legal are different. Marvin was doing what he thought was right. Helping out a family who had big problems and didn't know how to help themselves. To Appalachians, that's typical Yankee-thinking: "I know what's good for you and I will force you to do it because people like me make the laws." To Tucker, however, Marvin was a foreigner threatening his family. Marvin came onto his land, into his house, and planned to kidnap his children. Using deadly force is simply self-protection.
Maybe that points to a deep problem in America ... we still don't have a universally shared value system. Many southerners still believe in a class-based society and think the wrong side won the civil war. When I lived in the south I knew a lot of people who thought they were enlightened because they believed slavery was wrong and had a black friend, but deep down they thought black people were not as smart as white people, were not as energetic, were naturally more violent, and their lives weren't as valuable. Maybe they didn't even know it themselves. I met people who respected me for my brains and education, but could never think I was as good as they were--I was just a country boy from Kentucky. That's a far cry from southern aristocracy.
The north imposed its will on the south, but did not convert them. To me at least, that's the core of why Tucker killed Marvin. And killing someone illegally doesn't make Tucker a bad man, because it was a good act within his belief system.
I love the minimalist way Offutt writes. It's like the Beatles ... they cut and they cut until there was nothing left but the essence of their music.
For someone from Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, and even Rowan county, the book has some fun easter eggs. That is, references that most people won't get.
I love this book. I was the first fan of Chris Offutt and still the best fan.
When my friend began her review Country Dark is one of the best novels I'll read this year, even lacking a crystal ball to indicate what I'll read between now and January 1. I knew I needed to get to it sooner rather than later. Her comment is spot on.
The story begins in 1954 and Tucker is making his way home to eastern Kentucky, having been discharged from the Army and his duty in Korea. Second paragraph:
Tucker sought shade and found a strip cast from the leg of a billboard encouraging him to buy shaving cream. He needed a shave, but didn't figure a giant picture would convince him to spend money on something he could make from borax, oil, and chipped soap. He dropped his rucksack, opened a can of Libby's Vienna sausages and ate them with saltine crackers. he used a church key to open a bottle of Ale-8, and drank half.I wondered how many readers under 30 would know what a church key was, but I admit not knowing what Ale-8 is. I thought it might be the southern name of V-8 or similar. Apparently Offut's prose has been called "lean" and "brilliant". I'm not sure what lean means in this context and it is not a word I would have chosen and, for me, wouldn't be coupled with brilliant. However, I selected this passage because this prose doesn't seem lean to me, which I might associate with the word pedestrian, even boring. Brilliant prose is that which I would read again immediately because the words are so beautiful. Offut's prose is such that you actually don't notice it, rather he uses words deftly to tell his story. That, to me, is better than either lean or brilliant.
There are both highly dramatic scenes and quiet pastoral ones. I have a better sense and appreciation of this part of Appalachia than I ever did before. I will not do this book justice no matter what I write here. I will remember this book and perhaps that is enough.