It’s been almost twenty years since Offutt’s last work of fiction, but the wait has been worth it. In Country Dark, Offutt returns to familiar territory, the landscape of Appalachian Kentucky and its resourceful, but poor, inhabitants. As a Kentucky native son, Offutt knows his setting and its people intimately, and that is evident in his richly detailed scenes of the natural world and in the mannerisms, and more importantly, the dialect of the people of the “hollers.”
The novel begins in 1954 with seventeen-year-old Tucker returning to the Kentucky hills from the Korean War with eleven medals and the knowledge of how to kill. On the way home, he rescues an even younger girl, Rhonda, from imminent rape. The two marry and settle in the hills, and Tucker starts to run moonshine for a fat man named Beanpole. Tucker and Rhonda have five children; only one is physically and mentally normal. Still, the parents love and care for all their children equally, and when authorities threaten to remove the four children to state institutions, Tucker is forced to fight for them. That conflict sparks a wildfire of hard luck and violence that eventually burns out in an unexpected way.
The novel is gritty, violent at times, yet also loving. Readers know that Tucker’s actions to save his family are criminal, yet they also understand why he does them. They may ask themselves what they would do in similar circumstances.
Moral questions are at the heart of this novel, but Offutt does not suggest answers to them. He simply—but elegantly—tells Tucker’s story and lets readers come to their own conclusions. Richly evocative of its time and place, Country Dark is highly recommended.