The Same River Twice

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

THE SAME RIVER TWICE explores the problems of defining manhood in America in the late twentieth century. Chris Offutt notes in several contexts that, much as he might like it to be different, human beings depend upon imagination to define their individual and gender roles, and if the imagination falters,...

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THE SAME RIVER TWICE explores the problems of defining manhood in America in the late twentieth century. Chris Offutt notes in several contexts that, much as he might like it to be different, human beings depend upon imagination to define their individual and gender roles, and if the imagination falters, people are unhappy as individuals and usually fail to some degree in one of their primary roles, parenting. His and his wife’s mothers were unhappy in their traditional roles, and Offutt comes from a long line of bad fathers, though they have improved over time.

Offutt approaches this problem from two directions at once, weaving together in alternating short sections his wonderfully entertaining account of wandering in America with his meditations on the banks of the Iowa River during the year or so preceding the birth of his first son, Sam. His often moving and often hilarious adventures on the road teach him repeatedly that traditional definitions of masculinity became obsolete with the end of the frontier, and trying to realize them now leads to solitude, emptiness, death. His thinking about his relationship with his wife, Rita, about her pregnancy and his approaching fatherhood, teaches him the importance of a flexible imagination in making himself, being a writer, living and loving. The meditations often become poetry when he uses his experiences of nature as symbols to help grasp elusive feelings about impending fatherhood.

Offutt’s sense of humor and ear for dialogue are impressive in both strands of narrative, confirming the strengths of his much-praised collection of short stories, KENTUCKY STRAIGHT (1992).

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, December 15, 1992, p.709.

The Christian Science Monitor. February 16, 1993, p. 11.

Houston Post. February 7, 1993, p. C4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 24, 1993, p.6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 31, 1993, p.10.

The New Yorker. LXIX, April 12, 1993, p.121.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.2.

The Same River Twice

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

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 counteracts this problem to some extent by alternating the two strands in short sections. The second strand is more important, because it presents the answer Offutt has to offer for the central question of his wanderings: How does a sensitive and intelligent high school dropout from eastern Kentucky become a man in the United States late in the twentieth century? The voice of the travel narrative looks to action, adventure, achievement, and individualist experience for answers, but Offutt gets nowhere until he commits himself to marriage. When he is nineteen in New York, his first lover is Jahi, a spirited African American prostitute who aspires to be an actress. A final bad experience with her leads him to conclude, “Becoming a grownup had to mean more than sex, needed to be independent of women.” When he comes to know Rita, about twelve years later, he sees her as “Calliope making do with a mortal.” The narrative of her pregnancy and his responses is in part an extended meditation on dependencies, exploring ways in which male adulthood means sex and depending on women in fundamental ways that he did not understand at nineteen. He learns and demonstrates that achieving maturity is a matter much more of thought than of action, and when he accepts dependency and exchanges thinking for doing, he begins to become an artist as well.

Offutt’s wanderings do not end with his marriage, but they take on a more thoughtful and more circumscribed character. He eventually finds himself in a rented house, built on skids, in the woods on the Iowa River near Iowa City, where he is enrolled in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The skids make it possible to tow the house away from the river during serious floods. This precarious stability becomes decisive when Rita becomes pregnant. When Offutt hears the good news, he goes out to lie down by the river: “The land seemed to recede beneath me, leaving me prone in the air, as if residing between sky and earth. The clouds moved like surf. I was stationary while all existence was on the glide.” This floating stillness next to the river of change arouses Offutt’s ambivalence. He wants to escape it to take his own course, and he wants to remain in it with his beloved and their child, to see where it will lead. He stays, and satisfies his wanderlust by exploring river and woods:

My life’s progression had been a toxic voyage bringing me to the safety of the flatland, where I began each day by entering the woods along the river. I’ve become adept at tracking animals, finding the final footprint of skull and bone. Many people are afraid of the woods but that’s where I keep my fears. I visit them every day. The trees know me, the riverbank accepts my path. Alone in the woods, it is I who is gestating, preparing for life.

Offutt’s narrative is filled with evocative passages such as this one, where he presents images and suggestions of ideas that stretch to catch and hold the hard, the terrifying, the elusive in his feelings. He shows real adeptness at tracking down those feelings, not merely the trail of the moment but the trail through life that ends where skull and bone rest. His accounts of walks in the woods during the four seasons of his waiting may recall Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), but Offutt’s problems are quite different from Thoreau’s.

In one especially rich section, Offutt recounts what he has learned from voracious reading on pregnancy, mainly that women are stronger than men: “if childbearing were left to men, our species would have moldered because males could never accommodate the pain.” Around this idea gathers the rest of his reading and experience to confirm and elaborate it. He notes the reversal of traditional roles in Lamaze child-birth-the mother as macho, the father as sensitive and supporting. He reflects on the reality behind this reversal as illustrated by his nausea and Rita’s calmness before an especially messy diaper when they practice for parenthood by baby-sitting a friend’s child. He remembers reading about the history of religion in Mesopotamia, when hunting tribes conquered agricultural peoples, substituting gods for goddesses and inventing the story of Adam and Eve to justify asserting the inferiority of women. He thinks about his parents and Rita’s, both of whom accepted “simple,” traditional gender roles, in which the mothers were unhappy and the fathers inadequate. They do not want to live as their parents did, and this will mean that Rita works outside the home as a psychologist while he tries to combine writing with child care.

This section ends with Offutt watching a kingfisher on the river, routinely hunting its food, suddenly caught up in a situation outside its understanding. It accidentally stabs a large fish in the mouth while trying to catch a smaller one and is carried underwater: “A minute later the bird floats to the surface, still alive but so bewildered it is drowning.” Sex had been routine activity for Offutt until Rita became pregnant. Now it has become so complex that Offutt wishes-as he often does-that he could live as simply as the animals, doing by instinct or at least following tradition instead of having to be evolved and thoughtful, having to create the ways of being a man and father. Mother bears defend their young while fathers wander on their own. A female eagle can accidentally kill her mate during copulation. A male deer uses his harem as a decoy to protect himself from predators. Any of these gender arrangements would be fine with Offutt, he says, because at least they are simpler than having to work one’s way through the complexities of human relationships. Thus he understands the kingfisher’s disbelief at the failure of routine; still, he says, “I would trade my imagination for its wings.”

Offutt does not trade away his imagination but uses it to find a way to live, completing this one hard journey from a tradition of failed gender-role definitions into an acceptable but frightening manhood:

The birth of my son has made me a middleman, nearer to death and to life, closer to my father. With courage and work, my son will become an adult one day. Amid the trees and birds, I realize that despite the obstacles I set myself, I have somehow become one myself.

The Same River Twice combines an entertaining male odyssey through American culture with a sensitive reconsideration of contemporary masculinity. Offutt recounts his travels with the dark humor and the ear for dialogue of a Mark Twain or William Faulkner. His meditation on fatherhood, however, takes place at another level, where his prose approaches poetry and painting, those other arts to which he once aspired.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, December 15, 1992, p.709.

The Christian Science Monitor. February 16, 1993, p. 11.

Houston Post. February 7, 1993, p. C4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 24, 1993, p.6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 31, 1993, p.10.

The New Yorker. LXIX, April 12, 1993, p.121.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.2.

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