The following post was from my old blog, the Grace Apparatus, which I wrote a few years ago when I was getting back into writing short fiction. The post got a lot of hits from people Googling the author and title. Short story enthusiasts will enjoy Chris Offutt’s work. I always like to give a little warning for my Christian friends: there is some language which appears throughout this collection. Other than that, there is some great storytelling happening here. Read on for my review of Kentucky Straight.
I just finished the last story in this collection tonight. This is the fourth book of five that I started last spring with the intention of improving my own short fiction. As with the others books, there are stories I love and stories that I don’t care much for. My primary issue is always running into stuff that goes against my morals and while I’m willing to put up with some of it temporarily, my tolerance is wearing out. I can put up with some cuss words, but this is rather unhelpful for me in keeping my language clean. I can put up with some violence or bloody topics too because I’m not a violent man. But Offutt is gut-level honest about his characters. This is good and bad.
It’s good in seeing how to realistically characterize an uneducated hillbilly who survives to take care of family. And it’s good to see how people regret either leaving or remaining in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. But it’s bad when superstition leads a newlywed wife to send her husband out to sleep with an old woman living in a coal mine (“Aunt Granny Lith”) or with all the sexual immorality and hints of incest as found in “Nine Ball”. I could have done without that if all I wanted to do was learn from a good writer. Those topics don’t particularly entertain me, being that I’m a Christian and Christ had told me in His word to not partake of such things. My thinking is that if I shouldn’t do them, why read–or write–about them?
I did enjoy the grittiness of these stories though. I don’t think there is a single story that is without some element of tough living. I felt for the kid in “Sawdust” trying to get his GED (whose dad hanged himself, essentially stubborn and frustrated that he couldn’t change who he’d become). And Coe, the only black man in any of the stories, who finds himself helping prejudiced hillbillies haul a trailer up a muddy hill in “House Raising.” The drunken bulldozer operator’s son gets his lame legs cut off when thrown from the machine, and Coe, the only one with experience working at a horse farm, is able to stop the bleeding even though he’ll be blamed (and killed) if the boy dies.
There are people who can’t change, which adds an element of sadness to them. There are people brave enough to change, though they clearly haven’t thought through what that will look like–they are willing to risk it in hopes of a better life, as with Everett in “Nine Ball.”
My two favorite stories are “Horseweed” and “Smokehouse.” The former is about a man named William who is working any way he can to provide for his family. He does drywall, hunts and grows tobacco, and when these do not give him enough he begins cultivating wild hemp in the hidden hollows owned by a coal mining company behind his property. While hunting and checking his plants he runs into a man from the coal company who happens upon his crop. William is about to shoot to kill when he notices the man’s been bit by a copperhead. The story shows how far a man will go to get what he wants, which happens to be indoor plumbing and a mirror for his wife. The contrast between city life and country life is a hard line, showing the reader that you belong in one place or another, and you learn to get by wherever it is.
“Smokehouse” is about a backwoods card game that may well turn into a deadly feud between friends and a loudmouth braggart. Offutt gives us a glimpse of the friction between Melungeons, though not as clearly as he does in the story “Melungeons” found in his collection Out of the Woods. Still, the story is masterfully told and there are some animalistic themes which I’m still trying to weigh–people compared to coyotes and dogs.
The scenery and characters are rich and authentic, a quality which makes this collection worth the read, if you can stomach some of the harshness and foul language from time to time.
I enjoyed marking up the book, hunting for sentence structures and word choice. I think I learned a lot about telling a story from this read and was able to do a couple of pastiches which, while they were kind of a rip off, helped me immensely in improving as a writer. They also gave me a needed break from the rut I had been in. I’m hopeful that some of the stories I’ve been editing for months will gain some new life and become more believable as I process Kentucky Straight.