Chris Offutt has followed his impressive story collection Kentucky Straight (1992) with an entertaining and thought-provoking memoir. The Same River Twice: A Memoir interweaves two narratives in alternating sections. One is told mostly in the present tense and consists of meditations about fatherhood in anticipation of the birth of Offutt’s first child. The other narrative presents incidents from the fifteen preceding years, during which Offutt wandered America, trying to discover how to grow up. The expected arrival of his first son is the endpoint of both narratives. The main subject of Offutt’s meditations is that becoming a father requires him to be an adult male, a fate he has both desired and dreaded since his own childhood.
Offutt finds growing up difficult in part because he was the first and favorite son in a family of bad-though gradually improving-fathers. His family had moved into the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky in order to become distant relations, to separate themselves from bad parents. Though he was a favorite son, Offutt’s relations with his father became a kind of warfare, driving him to leave home at nineteen. A main problem was his father’s expectations of the first and favorite to carry on the family name in some clear and fairly conventional way. Following a venerable American tradition, Offutt orphaned himself, spending about fifteen years hitchhiking around the United States, living usually on the far edge of poverty, never holding a job for long, and having adventures. The interstate highway system was his Mississippi, and he combined Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim into his character. He was Tom Sawyer the trickster, Huck Finn the good-hearted, honest, and innocent raconteur, and Jim the outsider. While his contemporaries were getting degrees and serving apprenticeships, he made the underside of American culture into his Harvard and Yale, always taking notes in his journal.
As he recalls these adventures, he places himself within another tradition, that of the explorers who sought dreams in America: Daniel Boone looking for elbow room, Christopher Columbus (his namesake) working for wealth and honor, Juan Ponce de Leon seeking the fountain of youth. In his wanderings he meets many others, mostly outsiders like himself, who also hope to find something ultimate that will give them stature, dignity, a sense of possessing an important self. In Minneapolis he rooms with a Chippewa who dreams of going to the Amazon and becoming a “real” Indian. His painter roommate in Salem, Massachusetts, is never able to finish a painting. His lesbian neighbors in Boston want little more than to live quietly together, but are hounded out of work and housing. The Parrot Lady in the Hendley Circus, unable to have children, has illustrated her body with tattoos, becoming a freak to express her longing.
The problem for Offutt seems to be in part that traditional definitions of manhood prove unsatisfactory or illusory.
The men of my generation live in the remnants of a world that still maintains a frontier mentality. …Mountain culture expects its males to undergo various rites of manhood, hut genuine tribulation under fire no longer exists. We’ve had to create our own.
In California, he realizes that he has failed in years of searching for a satisfactory way of living when a man expresses contempt for the drawings he has been leaving on the beach in the hope of being discovered:
I slept in a homeless shelter and told stories to myself. I stole paper and pencil to leave my mark. No one knew me, or knew where I was. I suddenly realized that mortality was trivial. I felt dizzy, shaken to the marrow. A stranger considered me litter that produced further litter.
This failure continues through several more years of adventures until he meets Rita.
The image of manhood to which he remains faithful throughout his search is the artist, the creator. He dreams of being an actor, a painter, a playwright, a poet. By his own account, he puts little effort into any of these activities; he seems happier dreaming of greatness than making the effort to become great. During this period in his life he seems naive about the difficulty of achieving greatness and about the work involved, yet he is educating himself to write this memoir, living and observing and recording his adventures, which, though they lead nowhere in themselves, when taken together produce the writer Chris Offutt. When he meets Rita after returning to Boston from a stint as a park-service guide in the Florida Everglades—one of the dark places of the earth-he is past thirty and more than ready to become an adult.
Offutt’s adventures on the road are so unusual-sometimes a little unbelievable-and so entertaining that they tend to overshadow the other main strand of the narrative. Offutt...