The stories in Chris Offutt’s first book, the well- received 1992 Kentucky Straight, were so firmly situated in the mountains of eastern Kentucky that, in the tradition of William Faulkner, he included a map, with story locations labeled. In this, his second collection, he has moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the eastern Kentucky hill country remains a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt’s mountain men go, the hills haunt them.
This is a thin but not an anemic book—less than a two-hour read—richly flavored with Appalachia, but not by local color descriptions, sentimental nostalgia, corny dialect, or trendy marginalized social context, rather by characters who think and sound genuine. The stories in which talk dominates, rather than place or plot, are the most powerful ones in this collection.
Out of the Woods is wisely structured, beginning strongly with the best stories and, once having hooked readers, compelling them to finish even the weakest. The collection’s title story about a thirty-year-old man who has never been out of the county is the best. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, Gerald agrees to drive an old pickup for two days to pick up his wife’s brother, Ory, who has been shot and is in a hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska. While this may seem like a simple task, for a mountain man it is fraught with unease; the land in Indiana and Illinois is as flat as a playing card with no place to hide, and at night the sky seems to press down on Gerald in a threatening way. When he arrives to find his brother-in-law has died, Gerald meets the woman who shot him—marveling at her purple hair, the gold ring in her nose, and the fact that it all happened over a dispute about a blond wig.
Gerald makes some commonsense arrangements and a few man-to-man deals with the authorities and heads back to Kentucky with his brother-in-law’s body in the back of the pickup, stopping once to mound a pile of rich Illinois topsoil for his garden onto the body. This homey traveling grave becomes comically grotesque when Gerald stops at a gas station and a dog starts to dig in the dirt; the smell is so bad, a man thinks Gerald is taking a dead hog to the renderers. In this carefully controlled account of a simple man’s heroic management of an extraordinarily ordinary situation, Gerald’s final gesture is to tell a public lie—that Ory was accidentally shot—for the sake of his in-laws.
“Melungeons,” which appeared in the 1994 Best American Short Storiescollection, is another mountain story, told in the same understated way with a similar stoically heroic character. Not as powerful as “Out of the Woods” but more popular because of its exotic multicultural context, “Melungeons” is, on one hand, a variation of the oldest subtype of the Kentucky mountain story—the family feud, à la the Hatfields and McCoys. On the other hand, because it deals with the Melungeons, a small mixed-race (American Indian, African American, white) tribe that live in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, it has a faddish appeal to the current literary craze for all things culturally marginal.
The focus of the story is on Deputy Ephraim Goins, who puts seventy-six-year-old Melungeon Haze Gibson in jail at his own request for his own protection. Gibson has left the mountains because of a family feud but now has returned because he has missed every wedding and funeral his family has ever had. Goins, also a Melungeon, has suffered racial prejudice and recalls being assigned to an all-black company when he was in the army after a dentist noticed his gums were tinged with blue. Scorned both by whites and by blacks, Melungeons are thus doubly exiled and marginalized.
Haze Gibson is one of the last of the older members of his family still alive, while his nemesis, Beulah Mullins, is one of the last old members of her clan and has heard he has returned. Beulah, who has never voted or paid taxes, who has not been off the mountain in fifty years, and for whom there is no birth record, makes the trip into town in answer to a bone-deep demand; more than thirty people from the Mullins and the Gibson clans have died over the years in the feud that started sixty years before over disputed bear meat. She goes to the jail with a sawed-off shotgun hidden in her skirt, implacable in her duty, kills the last of the old Gibsons, and takes his place in the jail cell. Deputy Goins walks out of the jail and heads toward the nearest slope, having been called by this primitive ritual back to the hills. The story is told in the restrained classical tones of mythic inevitability.
“Moscow, Idaho” and “Two-Eleven All Around” focus on...
(The entire section is 1960 words.)