Close to the Land
Story collection offers sharply defined portraits of Appalachian life
By Michael Sims and Diann Blakely
APRIL 5, 1999: Chris Offutt reminds me of Robert Duvall in The Apostle--hidden in his characters yet firmly in control of their stories, wringing poetry out of their everyday lives. The difference is this Chris Offutt isn't acting. He knows the people of Appalachia so well because they are his own people. A lifetime of observation lends every page a ring of authority that cannot be faked.
You may know Offutt from his three earlier books, which have garnered numerous awards and honors. His first, Kentucky Straight, came out seven years ago, followed by The Good Brother and The Same River Twice. Now he presents eight surprising and beautifully written new stories in Out of the Woods. It's a slim collection, totaling only 172 pages, but it feels distilled rather than meager. Frequently Offutt tells in a few pages what others would have fleshed out over an entire novel.
Although Offutt's stories take place in our own era, his setting lies just off the map of the New South painted by such contemporaries as Padgett Powell. A man driving cross-country to retrieve his brother-in-law's corpse, a mountain man forcing his own arrest to protect himself from feuding kin, an ex-con working as a gravedigger and yearning for the comforts of prisonthese situations would be perfectly at home in the biblical no-man's-land of Flannery O'Connor or even in Faulkner's unpronounceable county.
Coming home is a recurring theme in Offutt's work. He doesn't argue with Thomas Wolfe. He knows that you can't go home again, but he also understands that you have to try. Offutt himself left his own Appalachian community of 200 when he was 19 and spent his 20s wandering from job to job. Now, returned homemarried, settled, among the people of his childhoodhe writes impressively clear-eyed prose that somehow manages to be romantic and restrained at the same time. Even more impressive, he unites these disparate approaches with an aching poetry.
Offutt lacks O'Connor's irony and Faulkner's stylistic restlessness, but he shares their sincerity. He understands both the marginalized sensibility and the arcane expertise that it engenders. In "Melungeons," he describes a spring dawn when an Appalachian mountain woman visits town for the first time in half a century:
"She scented town before she saw the buildings. Town was suddenly all around her. Beulah moved downwind of a police car. She couldn't read, but knew that an automobile with writing on its side was like a tied dog. Whoever held the leash controlled it. She stalked the town from the shade. Her shins were damp from dew."
Usually, Offutt's fictional landscape lacks both the shopping malls and the theatrical grotesques that populate much of contemporary Southern fiction. What it hassketched in almost offhandedlyis a parade of ordinary human beings, largely of the down-and-out subspecies, faced with both the smaller frustrations and the larger mysteries of life. Most are trying to understand the world around them. One man, the narrator of "Two-Eleven All Around," meditates upon the plight facing children of divorce:
"The way it works anymore is you don't raise your own kids. You raise someone else's while a stranger takes care of yours, and then when that doesn't work out, everyone moves along to the next person with a kid. It's like two assembly lines moving in opposite directions."
Fiction nourishes us because we're convinced, despite our fears and troubles, that we are each significant. We matterif only to each other, even if only to ourselves. Fiction takes us inside other lives and shows us scenes that reveal, above the needy scurry of our animal existence, the importance of being alive. Offutt understands this, but he never says it. He knows that his job as a fiction writer is to show us significant moments without telling us why they're significant. We do the rest.
Musician Honeyboy Edwards' memoir, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing (Chicago Review Press, $24), recounts many tales of life's unfairness to both church-going sharecroppers and Devil-dealing bluesmen in Jim Crow's South. Nonetheless, this Delta-born partner and friend to legends like Robert Johnson offers neither complaints nor apologies as he reaches his 80s. Edwards' work echoes instead with the same steel-plucked authenticity that marks his guitar stylea potent mix of down-home and Chicago. "Everywhere the blues took me was home," the book's conclusion hymns. Just recently, the music took Edwards to Washington's Kennedy Center, where he was honored by the Blues Foundation and Hall of Fame.
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