Tucker is a dangerous boy. At 16, he leaves the poor hill country of eastern Kentucky and joins the army to fight in the Korean War. His woodland skills make him an ideal candidate for the era’s special operations forces. He becomes a knife-master who can easily dispatch an opponent in close combat, a dark art that will prove useful when he returns to civilian life.
If Tucker is a man of few words — “I don’t never say things I don’t mean” — neither are there wasted words in Chris Offutt’s bang-bang second novel, “Country Dark.” With economy, and quickly, the author shapes the substance of Tucker as though he were fire clay.
He’s a loner with a stern and noble Appalachian code. He doesn’t like to read, preferring to scan the wild for signs. He doesn’t like towns because towns have “too many people doing too many things at once.” And Tucker’s life experience leaves him with a poor view of humans: “He wondered why a tree grew so close to the same water that would make it fall. Maybe trees were as greedy as people.”
Tucker does like the night — the “country dark” — because it makes him feel safe. Yet, there will be little security in Offutt’s riveting “Thunder Road” narrative, not if his hero expects to survive his region’s brutal poverty and the inevitable clash with law enforcement over his illegal whiskey running — it is eastern Kentucky, after all. The ’50s-era post-war Good Life never quite made it up Tucker’s “home hill,” where it’s still the Great Depression — the one that occurred in, say, 1815.
Upon his stateside return in 1954 as a decorated veteran, Tucker detrains in Cincinnati and begins walking more than 100 miles back to his homestead outside of Morehead, a little Kentucky college town.
Along the way, he thwarts the attempted rape of a young woman who will soon become his wife. Rather forcefully, he persuades her assailant to sell him his Chevrolet Fleetmaster, which Tucker modifies into a “run-rig” for hauling liquor. He goes to work for a wily 350-pound bootlegger named Beanpole, the novel’s most entertaining character. Comedic and shrewd, Beanpole had “long ago learned that the best way to win people over was do them a favor ahead of time.”
It’s a profitable 10-year relationship, until the mid-’60s, when the pair find themselves in some trouble. Beanpole concocts a jail strategy to salvage his moonshine kingdom. Tucker agrees to become the fall guy in a setup, thus providing himself with an alibi for a likely murder rap. Accordingly, he’ll take the political heat off of Beanpole’s operation. Think of it as a favor.
Upon Tucker’s release from prison, “Country Dark” charges toward Offutt’s brilliant, tremendously plotted slow battle, as if Little Round Top had been fought by only three men.
The eastern Kentucky hills are a remote and eerie place of shadow and secret. It follows that in “Country Dark” there’s a claustrophobia to the physical surround: “the hollers were tight enough that mushrooms grew on both sides due to lack of light.” Isolation is heightened by a political seclusion from the era’s upheavals. The impact of the civil rights struggle is non-existent, hidden as Tucker and his land are. The later Vietnam War is only mentioned as an opportunity for Beanpole to ponder his jump from whiskey to weed.
While Offutt’s thematic might be characterized as Southern Quotidian, he’s a refined, versatile writer, sometimes impish, always ecumenical, never snobbish. Growing up in an impoverished rural community, a mined-out company town outside of Morehead, Offutt had the benefits of an education — he was a voracious reader. He was encouraged to look down on his less fortunate peers, many of whom were potential Tuckers. Instead, he developed feelings of solidarity with them when he experienced the humiliation of being labeled “a country boy come to town.”
Today, as an essayist, he turns his thoughts this way and that, Montaigne-like, readily exposing his emotional vulnerabilities, always a prelude to a rousing broadside like “Trash Food,” a short piece collected in “Tales of Two Americas” (2017). “The term ‘trash food’ is not about food,” he writes, “it’s about social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat … The food is called trash, and then the people are.”
This is the kind of author that “Country Dark” deserves: He scatters little halos of earthy metaphor (“Sunlight glared along the river, its surface shiny as lard.”); he locates dark prophecy in shades of detail (a katydid lands on Tucker’s arm, “wings distending as if preparing for battle”); he has a great ear for humorous rural chatter (“The boy was as crazy as a rat in a coffee can.”).
As a thinker, Offutt’s main character is most voluble with his children. Discussing the heavenly bodies with his youngest son, Tucker remarks, “They’re up there and we’re down here. They ain’t no roads either direction.”
If this cosmic observation has an absolute ring, Chris Offutt’s mountainy universe has far less stability, as he writes in “Trash Food": “Appalachians are suspicious of their neighbors, distrustful of strangers, and uncertain about third cousins.”
Extending his sympathy for the poor kids he grew up with, the ones who only had potato chips to eat, Chris Offutt feels an unabashed concord for the world’s community of outsiders. It’s a sanguine vision for reality qualified by an embrace of resignation, endurance and impatience. When Beanpole says, “We just got to take it and keep taking it and it’ll get better one of these days,” Tucker responds, “One of these days ain’t coming fast enough.”