By Leonard Gill
FEBRUARY 8, 1999:
Out of the Woods, By Chris Offutt, Simon & Schuster, 172 pp., $21
In Chris Offutts new collection of short stories, the home hills push as much as they pull: push you West and wondering why you left the Kentucky woods in the first place; pull you back and puzzling why youre home to stay.
Come out of the hills and scatter to Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, or Oregon, and what you learn is defeat. Return out of love for those hills and what you learn is despair, despair that a code still pits family against family across generations, father against son just across the ridge, and then draws blood. Any way you look at it, life as lived in these parts out of the woods, Offutts woods is no walk in the park.
Offutt himself moved back to Kentucky recently after years out West too, and in these eight, super-trimmed-down stories, hes back to the bare-bone-and-brooding style that made its debut in Kentucky Straight and made itself scarce in The Good Brother. In Out of the Woods, hes hard-boiled that style down to the essence. When Offutt takes razor to dialogue, few words get said, its true, but things do happen and not necessarily with eruptive force. Call these lives, as one character does, an exercise in point-blank living: entrapment and old scores this side, among the hills; bad breaks, booze, one-night stands, and open ends beyond. Both are vantage points to help with the trigger, but the outcome only sometimes reports with a bang.
Take Gerald Bolin in the title story. Bolin goes to fetch his dead brother-in-law in Wahoo, Nebraska, buries him in the bed of his pickup under a mound of Illinois dirt, and escorts him home to a countryside of light and forest Bolin at once understands would be this way forever. Thus does Bolin officially right himself in the eyes of his wifes remaining and suspicious brothers, and thus do the hills confirm a prison.
But the beyond also has its secrets. In Moscow, Idaho, two ex-cons work at digging up graves for transfer to a new cemetery. One makes a break; the other learns a lesson. (The secret was to act like the people who wanted the laws in the first place. They didnt even think about it. They just lived.) And in Two-Eleven All Around, an unnamed narrator in Casper, on the outs with his current girlfriend and her school-age son, lets us in on another lesson, this one on the topic of third-rate romance: The way it works anymore is you dont raise your own kids. You raise someone elses while a stranger takes care of yours, and then when that doesnt work out, everyone moves along to the next person with a kid. Its like two assembly lines moving in opposite directions. At the end are grown kids who havent been raised so much as jerked up. (This from a Wyoming man whos given his own son not a word of advice but who has given him the example of his own sorry life.)
Violence, however, does have its day. In Melungeons, Haze Gipson, just returned to Rocksalt, positively asks to be jailed only to be delivered into the hands of an 84-year-old named Beulah Mullins, who promptly shoots him in a generations-long feud and all of it over a bear. (Beulah gets jail too.) In Target Practice, a distant father all but begs for, and receives, a bullet from his own loath-to-admit-it but loving (and quick-aim) son. And in the most memorable story of the collection, Barred Owl, Tarvis Eldridge has trouble witnessing a mosquito being swatted and no trouble at all rigging a bow and arrow with which to shoot himself. (In High Water Everywhere, a levee gets blown up, and in Tough People, a woman gets roughed over, but the men? They wind up alone and abandoned but at least left for alive.)
All told, then, its not a pretty picture as set forth in Out of the Woods. But its an impressive one, especially if your taste in stories runs to the lean, the mean, and the unexpectedly humane. May Chris Offutt forever keep to his old Kentucky home.
I havent read Chris Bohjalians resurrected bestseller, Midwives, but Oprah Winfrey has, and, for that reason, scads of others have. I have read his latest, though, The Law of Similars, and a tidier, more calculated bit of respectable but commercial product you are not likely to find. Just dont go into it, at the most, looking for art, or at the least (as the book is built-in to do) looking for suspense.
The story concerns one slightly overweight but very dateable Leland Fowler, age 35 and chief deputy states attorney in Vermont living outside Burlington. A widower left with raising what appears to be an untroublesome 2-year-old named Abby, Fowler has been suffering from a (psychosomatic?) cold for half a year. Fed up with over-the-counter methods and his doctors sound advice, he turns to a beautiful homeopath named Carissa Lake, who in less than a week clears his head using that alternative standby to standard medical procedure: dilutions of arsenic on top of undiluted sex appeal.
Fowler falls for Lake, but Lake also treats one Richard Emmons, who (mistaking her instructions?) goes off his asthma and eczema medicine, bites into a cashew nut (a member of the same family of plant Lake is using to treat him), and instantly goes into anaphylactic shock and coma. This event occurs on the very evening that Fowler is having his first sex with Lake under a Christmas tree and his first real involvement with a woman since his wifes tragic death in a car wreck, which, this being a potboiler, was not her fault. Lake, with Fowlers encouragement, doctors her records on Emmons to clear her of any direct wrongdoing should there be an inquiry into the case, at the same time Fowler is going into overdrive worrying about the ethics of it all and just as you, dear reader, brace yourself for an extended investigation and some standard courtroom histrionics. Concerning that last and to your disappointment, youre denied both. Emmons dies, Lake takes off for Europe, and Fowler is left hunting her down. End of story.
But not the end of your wondering why more hasnt been made here of the moral quandary Fowler puts himself in. The answer comes when Emmons widow, to the surprise of everyone, including you, refuses to press charges! (Never mind the teasing ones treated to over homeopaths being or not being licensed in the state of Vermont and the witnesses who think they heard Lake giving Emmons an okay on the nuts.)
The Law of Similars has the surface feel of a soundly put-together bestseller brought to the page by an adept ex-ad-exec, which is, in fact, what Bohjalian is. Its the hard-to-arrive-at virtues of Chris Offutts latest, though, that stick, and the particulars of Chris Bohjalians that do not.
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