The nine stories in Chris Offutt’s first collection, Kentucky Straight, capture the imagination with their authority and speak to the heart with their humanity. They come from a writer who knows and loves the landscapes and characters of his native eastern Kentucky.
The setting for the stories is the hill country of eastern Kentucky after 1950, a time when a rich culture that had been comparatively isolated merged uncomfortably into the modern technological United States. In the previous generation, coal companies stripped the area without markedly enriching its people. Now roads, electricity, indoor plumbing, and other technologies are slowly making their ways into the area. Passing is an old way of life: subsistence farming and hunting, a clan organization, a uniquely local culture. Roads and modern communications draw people away to now-reachable towns to earn enough money to shift from subsistence living to consumerism. Although most people welcome their new freedoms and powers, they are not happy to see their cultural traditions disintegrate. The younger people often come to see their homeland as a place to get out of, and the older people are bewildered and angry but proud, simultaneously embracing and fighting change.
“The Leaving One” reflects several of these themes. Young Vaughn Boatman lives with his mother, his father apparently having abandoned them. He meets in the woods a strange old man who seems to have magical powers that connect him with the wild forest. The stranger says that he is Elijah Boatman, Vaughn’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Vaughn’s mother had told him that the old man was dead because she felt guilty about having allowed him to be placed in a care facility. Now Elijah has returned home to find his grandson.
Elijah fought in World War I and returned with a strangeness in his character. When all of his sons were killed in World War II, he took to the woods and became even stranger. Now, at the end of a long life, Elijah wants to pass on to his only grandson the legacy of his spiritual connection with this landscape. He takes the boy on a mystical journey that leads them to “the going over place.” There Elijah gives his grandson tokens and words that unite Vaughn with his deepest heritage, so that he and the landscape become intimately related.
“The Leaving One” repeatedly contrasts the irrational truths that Elijah believes with the rational facts that Vaughn knows. Elijah’s knowledge seems to include both the materiality and the spirituality of the cosmos, while Vaughn has learned so far only the materiality, viewing with skepticism even his mother’s superstitious belief that a bird flying into the house presages a death in the family. Elijah makes a point of living through the strangeness of the coming of modernity to pass to his male heir his most-valued old truth.
“House Raising” offers a quite different perspective on the disjunctions that result from the passing of the old culture. Newly married Aaron has leveled the top of a ridge so he can park the used house trailer he has bought. On the day the dealer tries to deliver the trailer, heavy rains make the roads impassable, and the truck towing the trailer becomes stuck on a dangerous hillside. Aaron’s brother, Mercer, waits with the black truck driver, Coe, for another local man to bring his bulldozer to the rescue. Mercer and Coe become friends during their brief visit, as Mercer sees that he and Coe have much in common even though Coe is doubly the stranger, as an African American and an outsider. Mercer later amazes his friends by drinking from the same liquor bottle Coe has drunk from. When a wild joker, Old Bob, accidentally knocks his crippled but talented son, Bobby, off their bulldozer and severs one of the boy’s useless legs, Old Bob refuses to let Coe, because he is black, touch his son, even though the boy is bleeding to death and Coe knows what to do. Largely on the authority of Mercer’s trust, the other men let Coe tie off the artery, possibly saving Bobby’s life.
Tension between the old ways of this community and the new invading ways is everywhere in the story, from the image of the used house trailer mired in the rain-soaked road to Old Bob’s resistance to allowing a black outlander to help his dying son. Mercer’s refusal to be governed by racial prejudice comes from an older tradition of intermarriage among races that is shown in another story, “Old of the Moon.” Intervening between the times when whites and Native Americans intermarried and formed the old culture of this region and the present of racism and distrust of the outsider is American history from the revolution through the Civil War and into the twentieth century. This region has been isolated enough to preserve some of the old egalitarianism but has been invaded and exploited enough to cultivate prejudice.
Perhaps the most moving stories are “Sawdust” and “Blue Lick,” two first-person...
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