The one ubiquitous character throughout the fiction of Chris Offutt is the hill country of eastern Kentucky. It is not just a location or a backdrop for stories, as it has so often been for other Kentucky writers, such as James Lane Allen and Jesse Stuart. Offutt’s hills are living, breathing things that hold people and, within the workings of the story, often become like a deuteragonist, the character who most heavily influences and motivates the protagonist. In his early fiction, eastern Kentucky, wounded, suspicious, and recovering from the damages of the coal and steel companies, which, in earlier generations, stripped it and its people of physical and spiritual worth, leaving nothing but wounds and scars, is entering a new age. New roads and new forms of communication are forcing connections with the rest of the world, allowing the people to move, in the words of Terry Heller in his review of Kentucky Straight, Offutt’s first collection of stories, “from subsistence living to consumerism.” Offutt deals with the growing pains of these changes without derision or mockery. He does not create stereotypical hillbillies or subhuman families that breed only within their own family. He deals with incest and other subjects often associated with the area in real, honest, and accurate ways.
Offutt’s more recent fiction is rife with the power of those same hills to project a siren’s call for the return of those who have gone away. These later stories deal more with human feelings of isolation, alienation, and disorientation; whereas the earlier stories concentrate more on the protagonists’ feelings of belonging, of being connected by some mystic or metaphorical umbilical cord.
One recurring theme in Offutt’s stories is the imposing notion in eastern Kentucky that a person should never try to rise above his or her peers or elders. At the beginning of “Sawdust,” Junior, the boy who serves as first-person narrator, says, “Neighbors say I think too much.” When Junior makes known his intention to take an equivalency test and thus earn a high school diploma, his family acts as if they are ashamed of him, and his brother refuses to talk to him at all. When a group of boys, after hearing about his ambition, beat him, Junior’s older brother, Warren, retaliates to save the family honor. He seems to accept Junior’s claim that he wants the diploma for the same reason Warren wants a battery-powered television—“To sit and look at.” Once he has it, the diploma is much more than that to Junior. It is proof that his father, a lunatic who hanged himself with his belt because he was unable to heal a puppy’s broken leg, was wrong when he said “a smart man wouldn’t bother with town.” Junior knows that he “can go there anytime.” He knows that his boundaries are expandable.
“The Leaving One”
In “The Leaving One” Offutt explores the bond with the mountains felt by the natives of eastern Kentucky and the equally mysterious and mystic power of that area to call its people back to it. Vaughn, a boy who lives with his mother, meets a strange old man in the woods who claims to be Vaughn’s maternal grandfather, Elijah “Lije” Boatman—a name that foreshadows the mystical journey through which he will lead Vaughn. Lije, who left the mountains to serve as a chaplain in World War I, lost his three sons to World War II and abandoned the civilized world to live in the mountains for more than forty years, until workers captured him and his daughter, Vaughn’s mother, and had him committed to an asylum. Lije has returned to the mountains to die and to find his grandson and train him to replace him as mountain mystic. Lije gives Vaughn a stone that he has worn around his neck since Lije’s “pa-paw” gave it to him just before he died, a talisman that...
(The entire section is 1581 words.)