Review: 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 for a 350-pound bootlegger nicknamed Beanpole, a job succinctly described as a "hard way to make an easy living."

When violence erupts as state welfare officials threaten to remove Tucker's children from the home, he's placed in a compromised position--one Beanpole is only too happy to exploit. Just as he did when surviving fierce hand-to-hand combat on the way to winning 11 medals in Korea, Tucker, a man "most dangerous when he appeared benign," must rely on his wits and his fighting skills in a hostile new environment to keep himself alive. He is unsurprisingly betrayed by Beanpole, masquerading as his benefactor, and his vengeance is both swift and terrifying.

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. One moment Tucker is relaxing in woods that "reverberated with the droning hum of locusts, rising and falling as if they were a chorus led by a master insect." Later that same day he encounters a "heavy-bodied timber rattlesnake basking in the sun, docile as if it had recently come out of hibernation." Offutt's ease with the local vernacular lends realism and color to the story--as when he dismisses a character whose "brain was a dam missing a river," or sums up the Tuckers as a "good bunch with bad luck" to whom trouble came "like sideways wind in winter."

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

Shelf Talker: There's a timeless feel to Chris Offutt's novel about a man's fight for survival in the unforgiving world of the Kentucky hills.

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