Thursday, May 20, 1999

Writer's images of Ky. haunting




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MOREHEAD — Chris Offutt's men have missing eyes, crippled legs, prison records and quiet burdens. They grow marijuana in the Kentucky woods and put dead people in pickup trucks to carry them home. They are smart but unschooled. They make do without welfare.

        They love the land.

        Some of these men never leave the eastern Kentucky mountain ridges where they grew up. Others move out West to escape poverty, sameness and family feuds.

        They never really get away, though. The Kentucky hills — beautiful, impenetrable, shrouded in fog — pull them back, make them different from other Americans. They are less pretentious and more fatalistic. They say, “might could,” and “still yet.” They make a one-word sentence out of “Reckon.”

        These are the characters of Chris Offutt's fiction. They also are his own character, which is what I discovered when I went in search of the author last week.

        He is a native eastern Kentuckian working out his neuroses on paper. The results are so good that he gets published — and keeps right on trying to understand why he is both oppressed and delighted by the mountains.

        “If I could answer that,” he says, “I wouldn't have published these books, and I wouldn't have left and come back five times.”

        He pauses, thinks for a moment.

        “It's the land,” he says. “It's the land for me.”

        Last August, Mr. Offutt returned to Rowan County after years away. He took a teaching job at Morehead State University and staked out writing spots in the woods. He has been wanting to do this forever. As a kid, he lived in the forest. He knows that the smell of cucumbers means a copperhead is near. He has collected the delicate skulls of rodents regurgitated by owls.

        Mr. Offutt's first collection of stories, Kentucky Straight, was published in 1992 to terrific reviews, and he has since come out with a memoir, a novel and another collection of stories.

        At Northern Kentucky University, Professor Danny Miller uses Kentucky Straight in his course on Appalachian literature. It fascinates students, some of whom argue that “hillbilly” stereotypes are perpetuated by the grim circumstances Mr. Offutt describes.

        In one short story, for instance, a wall-eyed young man has a tinge of lust for his sister. In another, a son shoots his father. In every piece, it seems, somebody is either abusing dogs or picking ticks off them.

        I wanted to know how real these images are supposed to be. Mr. Offutt's answer: not at all.

        Around Morehead, he carries a pen and paper in his pocket, for recording what he sees and hears. He is always gathering material, but he bristles at the notion of anyone taking his work literally, or criticizing it as some sort of public relations disaster for eastern Kentucky.

        We're sitting in the Dixie Grill, which appears to be the last restaurant remaining in downtown Morehead. The daily special is soup beans, cornbread and cooked greens with vinegar on the side.

        “People need to realize, I'm not a journalist,” Mr. Offutt says. “This is not a depiction of life.”

        Instead, he writes to entertain others, amuse himself, create art and “clear out my neuroses.”

        For a long time, he resisted writing about what he knew so well. He was afraid of the emotions he might uncover. In the end, though, he could do nothing else, just as the man who tries to leave the mountains can never really escape.

        The dark tales in Kentucky Straight and his second collection, Out of the Woods, are not strictly autobiographical, but they contain bits and pieces of real events.

        There is, for instance, a man on a hillside in the rain, watching a truck sink into mud and a house trailer get stuck behind it. In Mr. Offutt's story, a drunken bulldozer operator with an empty eye socket arrives to pull it out, and his crippled son gets run over by the truck.

        Much of this is made up. But not all of it.

        At 19, Mr. Offutt left Rowan County and drifted from New York to Arizona to Boston to Florida — a wild journey chronicled in his memoir, The Same River Twice. At 30, he met his wife, Rita, who encouraged him to go back to college and study writing.

        Traveling the United States, he always felt like an outsider — a white man more at home with African-Americans and Hispanics. His stories and essays draw upon this perspective.

        His characters live by their wits in hard circumstances beyond their control. They are flawed but sensitive. Deep thinkers who drink too much.

        Their tales come from Mr. Offutt's imagination and his memory, mixed with elements of Greek tragedy, Scripture and Eastern European folklore. The results are taut, haunting and shot through with atmosphere.

        “Rain chewed fresh gullies in the ridge road, turning the hard clay dirt to a yellow paste,” one story begins. “The ditch overflowed and gray air blurred the low horizon. Dripping leaves hung limp and heavy.”

        Come June, Mr. Offutt will again be leaving this land. It is a prospect that makes him heartsick but can't be helped. His sons, Sam and James, aren't happy in school, and the teaching job at Morehead State hasn't worked out.

        The Offutts will return to Iowa, and he will return to a familiar state of longing.

        For what, he isn't exactly sure. He'll just keep writing it down.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or by e-mail at: ksamples@enquirer.com.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE