When Chris Offutt sat down to give his new novel a read, something struck him.
“Eighty to 85 percent of the scenes take place outside,” said the Lexington native who grew up in Rowan County.
That wasn’t by design. Offutt did not begin writing “Country Dark” with any intention of setting his story mostly outdoors. But, like his main character, like Offutt himself, outdoors was the most comfortable place to be.
In fact, many of the interior scenes of the novel, Offutt’s first in nearly 20 years, feel confining and ominous — even the interior of a car. Outdoors is where Tucker, a Korean war veteran before he’s 20, feels most in charge and in control.
And in a way, literally for a few months, it is the work that brought Offutt back home to a familiar place.
“I loved it,” Offutt says from his home in Oxford, Miss., where he is an assistant professor of English and screenwriting. “I loved the hills. I loved the freedom I had as a child. And that is a world I wanted to write about, a world and characters who didn’t carry cell phones. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to go see them.”
Offutt, 59, was born in Lexington and lived here four years, until his father got a job with Proctor and Gamble in Morehead. They lived outside of town in Rowan County, which etched many of the memories that inform “Country Dark.”
Offutt stayed close to home for college, graduating from Morehead State University in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in theater and English. From there, he started to wander, returning home several times, but not for long, as his literary career began to flourish.
After earning a masters in fiction from the University of Iowa, he lived in New Mexico and Montana, racking up honors such as Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Fiction and publishing a successful short story collection (“Kentucky Straight,” 1992), memoir (“The Same River Twice,” 1993) and novel (“The Good Brother,” 1997).
In 1998, it seemed he had made the move back home to teach creative writing at his alma mater and focus on more writing. But then he got an offer he couldn’t refuse to be a visiting professor at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.
“It’s an honor, a dream come true for anyone who went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to be asked to teach there,” Offutt said to the Herald-Leader in 1999.
As fate would have it, the offer came just as he released another short story collection, “Out of the Woods,” about people who long to come home to Kentucky.
And that is, in a sense, what Offutt did in “Country Dark,” it’s what Tucker is doing as the novel opens, returning from Korea on a train he abandons as soon as he can to trek back home across a lush, late summer Northern Kentucky landscape, to find his way back to his home of Rowan County.
Offutt does make it clear, several times in a late afternoon interview, that he does not recreate his hometown of Haldeman — a Rowan mining community that no longer exists — in the novel. He wanted to write about that time and place, something he initially aimed to do in a multi-generational story set in the area.
But then he got to like his leading character, a man of few words who lives by his wits, loves his family deeply, and tends to his responsibilities. It does not take Tucker long to find trouble back in Kentucky, or love. But, as it still can be, Eastern Kentucky is a place of few opportunities, and Tucker soon finds his best option is running moonshine for a fat bootlegger named Beanpole. You may call it a life of crime. Offutt doesn’t see it that way.
“I see Tucker as a good man who does things that are questionable in the eyes of the state,” Offutt says.
Despite the work, Tucker and his family live in poverty, but find what they need, to an extent, from being closely connected to the land — again, even if the state does not see it that way.
Early in his career, Offutt was known for extensive, even painstaking research for his stories, even moving to Montana to write about a Kentuckian who goes from Kentucky to Montana. And while “Country Dark” draws on memories forged in childhood, Offutt did come home for three months in 2013 to research the novel. He said that with all of his family having moved on, “coming home” now involves staying in “a hotel on the interstate.”
“I love the land and the culture,” he says. “It was completely familiar. The mountains of Kentucky are distinct. Tennessee and West Virginia have mountains, but they’re not the same.”
Offutt has never lost the desire to come home, even though he enjoys his life in the literary town of Oxford. He says William Faulkner and his legacy established Oxford as, “a place where it’s acceptable to be a writer.
“It’s a small college town. Young people coming in helps keep the place from getting too stodgy or old fashioned.”
That said, like when he was in Morehead, Offutt lives a few miles outside of Oxford.
“It’s in what they call North Mississippi Hill Country,” Offutt says, and then laughs, “but I haven’t seen a hill, just a lot of rises and slopes.”
The man knows hills. Just read his new book.
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes