The Same River Twice
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
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...
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