Chris Offutt’s “Country Dark” is a compact book with a limited cast. The novel nonetheless has the feel of an epic — a story of men and monsters and moral choices that can redirect the course of history, if only for a family living in the hills of Kentucky.
Offutt, who has been a student and a visiting faculty member in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, hasn’t published a book of fiction since the 1999 collection “Out of the Woods.”
“Country Dark” is such strong work, one hopes we won’t have to wait nearly as long for additional fiction from his pen.
The book tells the story of Tucker, who upon his return from the Korean War saves a young woman from rape and then forges a difficult but devoted life with her.
His fierce fidelity to his family and his dangerous profession as a moonshine runner lead to violence, which often seems like the only available response to the situations in which he finds himself.
The book’s flashes of violence are made all the more powerful by Offutt’s ability to position them in the quiet, ordinary moments that often precede and follow them. The fighting and gunplay are of a piece with the full fabric of Tucker’s life — a life defined by varying and shifting layers of loyalty.
Offutt’s prose is sharp and the noir tone of the book never wavers. Even more importantly, his dialogue, shaped by the dialect of the region, rings true. “Country Dark” may read like a mythical epic, but its characters feel wholly real.