Social services are involved. They tell Rhonda to cease relations with her husband, that the state will care for the burdensome children. Rhonda is outraged. Tucker, who runs bootleg liquor to parts north, promptly takes steps to defend his family.
You oughtn’t know much more heading in. The story rollicks from 1964 to 1971, careening downhill. There is a fantastic climax, a satisfying resolution. And “Country Dark” is audacious without seeming so at all. Routinely shifting points of view, Offutt accesses feelings and tones within tense and complicated moments with playful alacrity. After transacting some nasty business in the book’s late going, Tucker realizes, “War and prison had taught him that sides didn’t really exist, that everyone was eventually caught in the middle of something.” Novels can teach the same thing. We see all the sides. We are caught.
There is a saying that the Lord doesn’t give folks more than they can handle, which is another way of saying people get what they deserve. However you put it, it’s a Puritan lie. Outside your door are people heaped with more than anyone could handle. We’d do well to remember we are all caught in something eventually.
“He could stay here until he died of thirst,” Tucker thinks in the face of more than he can handle. “He could shoot himself in the head. He could climb higher on the hill and leap off the tunnel cut and land on the railroad track. No, no and no. Beanpole owed him ten thousand dollars.”
Books like this tell the truth. You’d rather die than bear the unfair burden. It’s a bloody fight getting what you deserve.
“Country Dark” is dark, but deeply humane. The love in this book is deep and powerful. And winsome twinkles shine through the blackness throughout, thanks in no small part to Offutt’s keen ear and eye. The coffee remains “strong enough to float a rock.” An old boy is commended for still being on his “hind legs.” Beanpole is fat with “table muscle” and Tucker remains “either-handed as a spider.”
“Either-handed” is an apt description of Offutt as well. His creative urges have found expression in memoir, short stories, comic books, essays and television. From his first collection of short stories, “Kentucky Straight,” to now, the quality always astonishes. His previous book, “My Father, the Pornographer,” found him reckoning with his dad’s career as an author of dark erotica and the man’s impact as a paternal and creative force on his son. I came away from that book with little wonder that Offutt’s own output is so catholic.
And yet it is surprising to realize that this is only Offutt’s second novel. His first, “The Good Brother” (1997), was so powerful that more seemed destined to come. Thankfully, his either-handed efforts still include novels of mythic power. This is the Chris Offutt book I’ve been waiting for — an achievement of spellbinding momentum and steadfast heart.