What’s truly at stake here is Hardin’s noble effort to prevent a domino effect of tit-for-tat killings and the challenges he encounters trying to glean information from tight-lipped mountain men and a pistol-packing mama named Shifty Kissick.
A typical exchange between Hardin and a resident of Rocksalt usually begins with a recap of his lineage, like this encounter with Tucker:
“Hidy, Mr. Tucker, I knowed you in grade school. I’m Mick Hardin. You got time to talk a minute?”
“Ain’t you got a boy looks a lot like you?”
“I am that boy.”
“Jimmy your daddy?”
“Yeah, and my granddaddy was Homer Jack.”
“All right, then.”
The cagey interactions between such distinctly drawn characters is what makes “The Killing Hills” a pleasure to read. The inhabitants of Rocksalt each have their own quirks, but they’re all cut from the same cloth because they’re either related by blood or marriage, or their families have known each other since the beginning of time.
The men of Rocksalt go by nicknames like Beanpole, Little Big Joe, Johnny Boy and (expletive) Barney. They drive Ford F-150s, eat Vienna sausages and drink Ale-8 soda. They’re often armed, accompanied by guard dogs and suspicious of everyone. Most importantly, they do not like the authorities meddling in their affairs. They prefer a DIY approach to justice.
It’s Hardin’s understanding and respect for the flawed people of Rocksalt that gives him the edge in solving the crime. He knows how to work the system by ignoring lesser criminal behavior like drug dealing in order to obtain information pertaining to a greater crime like murder. And he’s willing to exchange favors to keep the score even between clans. Offutt orchestrates a fascinating peek into Appalachian diplomacy. Witnessing Hardin navigate it is supremely satisfying.
Hardin’s other secret power is his intimate knowledge of the land. His hometown has changed a lot since he’s been away. The old courthouse is now a community center, his favorite diner is closed, and a new highway to nowhere has been built. But with the help of 50-year-old topography maps, he’s able to ferret out hideouts that are invisible to modern-day GPS systems.
Speaking of the land, the forested ridges and valleys of Rocksalt are so vividly portrayed, the setting feels as integral to the story as the main characters. The terrain teems with a variety of birds, snakes, squirrels and insects that chirrup and warble in the background like some sort of watchful woodland chorus.
“The surrounding hills were steep enough to skin your nose on climbing, strung by pine and yellowwood clinging to the limestone cliffs. The only sound was a distant cicada and an occasional blue jay irritated by the presence of humans. A squirrel chittered from the first fork of the nearest oak.”
Offutt’s gift for nature writing imbues his tale with a rich sense of majesty that provides a sharp counterpoint to the tragedies that unfold.
“The Killing Hills”
By Chris Offutt
219 pages, $26