— Award-winning author’s new novel after 20 years is an outstanding achievement.
For a writer with as remarkable a career as Kentucky’s Chris Offutt, it is interesting that his newest work, Country Dark, is just his second novel. In a trajectory that spans over a quarter century since the publication of his seminal short story collection Kentucky Straight (1992), Offutt has written award-winning fiction and scripts for TV shows like Weeds and True Blood, along with three candid and vivid memoirs.
If Country Dark as a title is not enough of a harbinger of what’s in store for readers, the novel itself doesn’t take long to introduce us to a gritty rural Kentucky landscape as experienced by Tucker, a young Korean War veteran who’s returning home. Hitchhiking through the countryside and camping in the woods, his brief interlude of peace is interrupted when he sees a woman running along a dirt road. She is escaping a man attempting to rape her. Tucker intervenes, granting us a first glimpse of his violent nature and how it’s been honed by his experience overseas. He swiftly disposes of his antagonist, who happens to be a deputy sheriff. The girl, 14-year-old Rhonda, is his niece. Tucker takes the man’s car and leaves with Rhonda, who “hadn’t spent a single night away from family, and certainly never slept in an automobile.”
The narrative skips ten years ahead to 1964. Tucker and Rhonda are married and he makes a living running moonshine across state lines for a 350-pound local kingpin known as Beanpole. The couple has five children but only one of them is healthy. The others, having been born with different disabilities, face the threat of being taken by the state after a self-important social worker by the name of Marvin Miller deems their home “unsuitable.” A besieged Tucker reacts the way life has taught him: violently. His act seals his and his family’s fate, begetting more violence and desperate bargains all the way to the novel’s brutal denouement.
Tucker’s laconic personality and ruthless efficiency might be mistaken as the traits of a unidimensional character, but throughout the story, subtle cues flesh out his motivations and his fiercely independent personality, his aversion to towns (“with too many people doing too many things at once, and everything boring in its repetition and noise”), and his affinity with the landscape. It is no coincidence that one of the few times in the novel in which Tucker seems to be at ease is when he is sleeping outdoors, where it is “country dark” and he can close “his eyes feeling safe.”
Like many of the best novels of place, in Country Dark, the landscape is not a mere backdrop but an active presence reflected in Offutt’s precise yet lush descriptions: “Wind in the high boughs brushed leaves like the sounds of distant water. As the canopy shifted, light flowed across the forest floor. He’d forgotten the pleasures of being in the woods.”
But this world is not just defined by Tucker or the landscape. Through shifting viewpoints, Offutt introduces a cast of compelling characters—especially the female ones—from the stoic Ruth to the mountain midwife Beulah Tolliver and her ancestral wisdom to the selfless social worker Hattie Johnson, whose secret sets her apart from the community she wants to help.
Country Dark is Offutt’s notable return to fiction and a reminder of what a unique voice he is in American letters.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard and The Texas Review.Review by Gonzalo Baeza