Genre: Literary Southern Gothic
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Pub. Date: April 10, 2018
Literary Southern Gothic is a new genre for me. I have always enjoyed a good Gothic read, but had no idea what Southern Gothic meant? So, I googled, and learned that it’s not Southern vampires (or at least not in literary southern gothic, though I’m sure that’s out there too). To my surprise, the books in this genre include: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and, “A Streetcar Named Desire”— well actually, just about all of Tennessee Williams’ work. This means it is some of my favorite books that became some of my favorite movies. So I am guessing that a story is in this classification as long as the setting is in the South, and the story contains violence, poverty, social issues, romance and a hint of noir.
I was expecting a stellar read since the author, Chris Offutt, has been awarded the Whiting Writers Award for Fiction/Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, among numerous other honors. And, a tense and atmospheric stellar read is what I got. It is written dark and taut and set in rural mid-century Kentucky. The protagonist is a husband and father who would do whatever it takes including murder, to keep, to his family housed, fed, safe and most importantly all together. At times, the protagonist reminds me of some city gang member from the TV show “The Wire,” fierce and shrewd, except our man’s evenings are not lit up with streetlights. His nighttime is mountain hollers dark. And, rather than city slang, his words are in Kentucky-speak.
We meet him when he is returning home from the Korean War covered in metals. The boy can shoot. He meets his future wife while she is about to be raped by her uncle, who is the local sheriff. She is fourteen-years-old, and he is eighteen-years-old. He rescues the girl, and she asks him not to kill her attacker since he is kin (that just about sums up the people who live in the hollers—if you are one who possesses Appalachian morals). This is the beginning of one of the toughest, yet sweetest love stories that I have ever read. They marry and have a bunch of kids. He makes a living by running moonshine. They need more than most since four of their six children were born with disabilities. The first thing the country smart, female social worker did was make sure there wasn’t any interbreeding. There wasn’t. Since there are no signs of abuse, this caseworker does what she can to help them. The not-so-country smart, male caseworker wants to put their disabled children in homes. Both mother and father are devoted parents. You can guess what happens here, which is the start of even more hardship for the family. Although he is meaner than a rattlesnake, and she is tougher than nails, both manage to hold on to their human decency, which I am not sure many could do while living in such dire conditions. You will root for this family that has underdog charm.
The story actually begins about here and this is all you should know for fear of spoilers. I will share that Offutt routinely shifts points of view, feelings, and tones within tense. The writing can be as playful as it is brutal, which can take you by surprise. Will this novel become a classic such as, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” or “To Kill a Mocking Bird?” I doubt it. It’s missing what can be found in the other books: The racial southern tension with good trying it’s best to triumph. Is “Dark Country” a spellbinding read that you will not soon forget? The answer to this question is most certainly yes.
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