Out of the Woods

by Chris Offutt
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1960

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.

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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 displaced eastern Kentucky men, the first, a former convict who has taken a job moving graves in Moscow, Idaho, and the second, an out-of-work drunk with an alcoholic girlfriend in Casper, Wyoming. What makes “Moscow, Idaho” so strong is the dialogue, for most of the story records the conversation of Tilden, the central character, and Baker, a fellow former convict, who are unearthing coffins to make way for a new highway through the cemetery. The men talk about prison life, which Baker misses because of the comfort of its routine and the camaraderie he felt there. However, Tilden, the Kentucky man, likes the quiet and the empty space of Idaho. When Baker steals a car and takes off, Tilden remains, unwilling to be on the run or to risk prison again. He lies on his back in a wheat field, wondering if he will ever find a woman he likes or a town he wants to stay in, happy that there is not a fence or a wall in sight.

If dialogue and anecdote characterize “Moscow, Idaho,” basic character concept is the foundation for “Two-Eleven All Around.” The central character is another displaced mountain man, thirty-five years old, out of work, homeless, with a girlfriend who is obsessed with listening to a police scanner when she is detoxing from alcohol with Prozac. The only thing he has going for him is a “two-eleven all around,” police language for someone who has no warrants against him in the city or county, and thus is free to go. Jealous of the time his girlfriend spends with the scanner, he loiters on a street corner, knowing the police will ask for his identification and that she will hear the whole thing on the scanner; he hopes that at least she will be happy that he is two-eleven all around. The story ends with an abrupt insight; the protagonist has a sudden vision that one night he will be awakened by his son banging at the door looking for a place to flop. While a part of him wants to tell his son to take a look at the empty beer cans, the beat-up furniture, and the dirty sheets, realizing that if he does not change his ways, he will be doomed to such squalor, instead he opens the door wide and lets him in.

For various reasons, the last four stories in the collection are not as strong as these first four. In “High Water Everywhere,” an Appalachian truck driver must abandon his load in Oregon because of flooding. When plot complications take over—not Offutt’s forte—the story becomes muddied and mired. First the man is accused of blowing up a dike and is arrested; then he is bailed out by a woman he has met in a bar, who, he discovers, for reasons never made clear, is the one who blew up the dike. All this is complicated further by the fact that the sheriff who arrested him is the woman’s brother. There is some sex out in the rain, some guilt over a man killed in the resultant flooding, and some talk about moving around as opposed to being a stayer. These plot complications never really come together convincingly, and the man’s final decision to sell the truck, apply for work, and get a wife is not really motivated or compelling.

In “Barred Owl,” it is not plot, but clichéd character that weakens the story. The protagonist, a former Kentuckian, who, after a divorce settled in Greeley, Colorado, because that is where his car threw a rod, becomes acquainted with another displaced mountain man who asks him to skin a dead owl for him. Although the story takes place in Colorado, there are more mountain traditions and rituals here than in any other story in the book as the men share ritual greetings with tobacco and stylized formal talk. The story is about the lonely protagonist, lost in meaningless activities, coming face to face with his displaced double; he realizes he must do something about his life when the depressed double takes his life by rigging a bow and arrow so he can shoot himself in the chest.

“Target Practice” is ineffective because Offutt’s habit of using unmotivated epiphanies at the ends of his stories finally fails here. The story focuses on Ray, a man who left Kentucky for the assembly lines of Detroit and has returned, only to be unsure that he has made the right decision. He is living in poverty and his wife has left him, but he is too embarrassed to tell anyone. The story’s single event centers on Ray’s buying a used rifle from a man and inviting his father to test it. As usual, Offutt expertly conveys just the right intonations of the tight-lipped father and son as they talk and shoot and spit.

The story turns ominous when the father puts the barrel of the gun in his mouth, but returns to the ordinary when Ray sees he is only blowing out the dirt. However, it abruptly turns ominous again when, just as Ray is about to tell his father of his wife leaving, the older man suddenly points his gun at Ray, who, without thinking, fires twice, the second shot making a hole in the father’s chest. It is a shocking event, for nothing has prepared the reader for it; although Ray and his father have never been close, Offutt has shown no overt animosity between them. Both the father and the son take the shooting relatively calmly, Ray thinking that there is not enough blood to have hit an artery. The Offutt epiphany ending comes when, putting his father in the car, Ray realizes that he has never touched him before. Looking at him without being afraid for the first time in his life, Ray realizes that he loves his father. However, how Ray’s shooting his father causes this new realization is not made clear.

Chris Offutt is the first fiction writer since James Still to capture the life of the people of the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Like Still, he understands and respects his characters. He does not exploit them as trendy exotics, nor does he revel in local-color quaintness. Offutt knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters. He is not a sociologist playing back a tape recording or illustrating abstractions, but an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (December 15, 1998): 727.

Boston Globe, January 17, 1999, p. E2.

Library Journal 123 (December, 1998): 160.

Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1999, p. E3.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 14, 1999, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (March 7, 1999): 16.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 31, 1999, p. G5.

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