OUT OF THE WOODS by Chris Offutt

Book Reviews
OUT OF THE WOODS by Chris Offutt
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Apr 18, 2007, 06:57

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OUT OF THE WOODS by Chris Offutt; Simon & Schuster, 1999

This collection of eight short stories from the author of Kentucky Straight chronicles the adventures of drifting characters trying to find a home, or in some cases, trying to avoid going back to their only real, inescapable home. Offutt grew up in a tiny Appalachian hill town, and did his share of drifting. These stories undoubtedly reflect his own ruminations about where one's “home” really is, how hard it is to escape, and how hard it is to go back. Like many of the characters featured in these stories, Offutt eventually found his way back to his home state of Kentucky, if not to the same hill he was reared on.

In each story, some cathartic event draws the protagonist home, physically or spiritually. Each story is a variation on the same theme, painted with similar brushstrokes, but differing in content and color, and the effect is not only moving, but profoundly thought-provoking. Offutt exorcises his own demons here, and lets you in on the process, taking on the problem from different angles and arriving at the same conflict.

In “Out of the Woods” a hill person named Gerald who had never strayed far from home is sent to retrieve the body of his brother-in-law, Ory, who had been shot to death in Wahoo, Nebraska. Along the way he admires the rich dirt of Illinois and is debriefed on the details of his brother-in-law's life and how he met his fate, which was in no small part due to his inability to adjust to his new surroundings. Equally fascinated and repulsed by the outside world, Gerald dutifully completes his mission and on his return spins a yarn about Ory's life that will soften the blow to his kin.

In “High Water Everywhere” a long-haul trucker becomes mired in a local flood, and is even accused of precipitating it by sabotaging a dike upstream. Stuck in the small town, he finds himself entangled with other characters, who are just as psychologically homeless as he is, and manages to de-tangle himself, escaping with only the loss of his trailer. Counting his blessings, he heads home with rejuvenated hope.

Offutt's writing style is concise and effective, and his use of the vernacular is usually relegated to the dialogue, where it belongs and where it is most effective. The punch lines are sometimes so subtle that you may find yourself occasionally paging back. The characters are given dimension via wry observations that more often than not hit home. In “Two-Eleven All Around” the main character, an ex-patriate father of one muses:

The way it works anymore is you don't raise your own kids. You raise someone else's while a stranger takes care of yours, and then when that doesn't work out, everyone moves along to the next person with a kid. It's like two assembly lines moving in opposite directions. At the end are grown kids who haven't been raised so much as jerked up.”

This is a revealing and revelatory work that examines a tough issue from many different points of view, showcasing fine writing all the while. My only complaint is that not everyone these days was born and raised in the same place the way Offutt was. Many of us don't have such a clear, static place of origin, and even if we do, our place of origin isn't necessarily so discernable from wherever we end up. I was born in Kansas City, moved to Milwaukee at age two, to Louisville at age five, grew up and went to college in Minneapolis. My parents now live in Dallas. So where's my home? Suppose you grow up in a suburb of Detroit with a Barnes and Noble and Starbuck's down the street and move to a suburb of Portland with a Barnes and Noble and Starbuck's down the street. Would you feel out of place? Should you? I'm not sure, but it's worth thinking about.

-Tim Teichgraeber

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