Award-winning writer Chris Offutt is the author of the New York Times notable book The Good Brother (1997), as well as several excellent story collections and memoirs. His bleak, savage depictions of rural down-and-outers combine the literary style of James Dickey with the noir chops of Daniel Woodrell. He owns a well-deserved reputation as a writer’s writer. Fresh off his 2016 memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, Offutt returns with his second novel, his first in over two decades. While Country Dark, a tale of family loyalty and violence in the hills of Kentucky, does not measure up to those past efforts, it’s still a slick bit of backwoods devilry.
The book spans around 20 years in the life of Tucker, a Korean War veteran, and his wife, Rhonda. Sliced into four sections and arranged chronologically, it opens in 1954 as 17-year-old Tucker walks the last 100 miles home after his discharge from the army. In the course of a day or two, Tucker confiscates a salesman’s pistol, saves 14-year-old Rhonda from rape—which, coming at the hands of her brutal uncle, means Offutt isn’t exactly slaying a hillbilly stereotype—and proposes marriage.
Leap ahead a decade: Tucker is running moonshine and scrambling to take care of his wife and five kids. Four of the children have such serious intellectual disabilities that state workers decide to institutionalize them. This doesn’t sit well with Tucker, a man fiercely protective of his family, and the threat touches off a violent chain of events that will alter the lives of everyone involved forever.
Tense and atmospheric, Country Dark is firmly rooted in time and place, with the verisimilitude expected from a writer who has made the shadowy hills of Kentucky his own.