Country Dark

If ever a novel were perfectly titled, it's Chris Offutt's Country Dark, a grimly realistic portrait of a man's desperate fight to save himself and his struggling family from extinction, deep in the beautiful and dangerous Kentucky hills.

Freshly returned from the Korean War in 1954, just shy of his 18th birthday, a veteran known only as Tucker traverses the lush countryside on foot, heading homeward, toward an uncertain future. Along the way, he rescues an adolescent named Rhonda from the advances of her lecherous uncle, and the young pair impulsively decide to marry. In a matter of barely 10 years, their union produces five children, four of whom, tragically, are profoundly disabled. To support his family, Tucker works running moonshine to Ohio and Michigan.

When violence erupts as state welfare officials threaten to remove Tucker's children from the home, he's placed in a compromised position. Just as he did when surviving fierce hand-to-hand combat in Korea, Tucker must rely on his wits and his fighting skills in a hostile new environment to keep himself alive.

Offutt (My Father the Pornographer), who grew up in a small town in eastern Kentucky, has a native's instinct for the region and its inhabitants. His descriptions of the natural environment are vivid and yet understated. For instance, Tucker relaxes in woods that "reverberated with the droning hum of locusts, rising and falling as if they were a chorus led by a master insect." Country Dark is a taut, well-constructed novel easily consumed in one sitting. There are villains aplenty, a deeply flawed protagonist but, in the end, only survivors. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

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