Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Parting Shot

By Blake de Pastino

Chris Offutt is one of the best writers that Albuquerque couldn't keep. I realized this only two months ago. He was having a sandwich in a nearby coffee shop, and it was then that he told me he was leaving town for good. Something about a big job offer in Montana. But he said it in the way that a country slugger might talk about leaving the minor leagues. With a mixture of uneasy pride, hope and humility. Like any one of his own characters might have said it. He felt happy for himself and sad for both of us.

Offutt's latest book--his first novel--is a lot like the author himself in that way: pleasantly complex and about as likable. But it's also Offutt's last work as an Albuquerque writer. And that makes it, to me at least, even more sentimental. Because The Good Brother is not only a good first novel by a local author, it is a downright successful novel on anyone's turf. It may be small consolation, but this book gives us plenty of cause to miss him and wish him well.

Anyone who knows his work, first of all, will recognize The Good Brother as a thoroughgoingly Offutt affair. Like almost everything the author has done, it's rooted in the hills and hollows of rural Kentucky, where we find young Virgil Caudill, a bumpkin of surprising innocence. He is cripplingly shy and painfully naive, so unaccustomed to the ways of the world that he seems at first like some Faulknerian man-child. But what is clear to him is the law of the hills, the law that has been pressing on him since his brother was murdered. Everyone knows who did it, and everyone makes plain what they expect of Virgil: to kill the killer. What follows then is the strange, centrifugal tale of Virgil's perfect crime, followed by his flight to Montana (!), where he meets up with a band of rebels and eventually faces his demons.

If all this sounds old-fashioned, it kind of is. But one of Offutt's ongoing strengths has been his ability to take up tradition and lathe it into a shape that he likes. In truth, he really is a refreshingly old-fashioned writer. He writes in the third person and in the past tense. He sings endlessly about landscapes and inflates his characters with violent emotion. He gives primacy to somewhat dusty abstracts--like loyalty and belonging--and he uses the word "reckon" without the slightest tinge of irony. Few writers his age do these sorts of things. And yet, Offutt also has the grit and militance of few modern novelists. Virgil, for instance, turns out to be a brilliantly elusive criminal, and the rebel band that sequesters him is in fact the Montana militia. So as you can imagine, Virgil's story turns out to be deceitfully timely, and not nearly as quaint as you might have thought.

Of course, though, there's always room for improvement. The first third of The Good Brother moves along rather ploddingly, as Virgil gears up to do the deed and the characters we meet mostly seem the same--slack-jawed hillbillies tuning up their trucks and drinking liquor out of mason jars. These hayseeds are much less believable than the earnest militiamen and supple love interests that populate the later parts of his novel, but the success of these later pages more than makes up for the occasional lull.

But still, Chris Offutt has made a famously difficult transition--from the short story to the novel--with style and grace. And while crafting this near-seamless story of shifting identities, he has himself developed into a writer of high order. I guess we can take pride in the fact that he wrote this book while living in Albuquerque. But I have to admit, there's one part of The Good Brother that truly makes me sad. In the blurb on the back jacket, where they talk about the author, it says that Chris Offutt the novelist has a wife and two children. "They live," it tells me without sympathy, "in Missoula, Montana." (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $23)

--Blake de Pastino







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