“Country Dark” by Chris Offutt and “Dry County” by Jake Hinkson

Reviewed by Thomas O’Grady

Recently, I read Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006), the basis for the feature film of the same name that I declined to see when it was released in 2010: I knew its premise from reviews, and my soul didn’t want to descend into the abyss of the crystal meth-ravaged subculture of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Over time Woodrell has distanced himself from the label “country noir” sometimes used to describe his work, preferring to see himself as a “semi-Southern, kinda-gothic, dramatic writer.”  But self-styled country noir-ist Jake Hinkson identifies Winter’s Bone as the standard-bearer for his own foray into that bleak generic territory, and the label is a convenient point of reference for appreciating the literary stakes in both Hinkson’s novel Dry County (2019) and Chris Offutt’s Country Dark (2018).

Offutt’s novel is one of the most compelling books I have read in recent years. Set in the back country of eastern Kentucky, the narrative inscribes seventeen years or so in the life of a hard-luck young man named Tucker. It opens in 1954 with Tucker returning from service in the Korean War. Not yet eighteen years old (he had lied to enlist underage), he quickly marries a fifteen-year-old named Rhonda. Over the next eleven years they have six children, four of whom are afflicted with debilitating physical or mental disorders that will ultimately lead to their being taken into state custody.

Chris Offutt

Deeply committed to his wife and children, Tucker works for a decade running carloads of moonshine north to Ohio and Michigan and carloads of licit whiskey and wine back to bootleggers in dry counties of Kentucky. Eventually, he becomes the fall guy for his boss, agreeing to do prison time in return for financial considerations for his family. By that point in the narrative, the resonance of the novel’s title has become clear. Tucker’s life is defined by the social squalor and the physical squalor of the backwoods of Kentucky and by a poverty of purse so deep that he can’t even afford to recognize the attendant poverty of spirit. He is utterly pragmatic about how to survive. This is hinted at early in the novel, after he deftly skewers and cooks a squirrel he had shot:

Darkness arrived gradually, then in a rush, shutting the space between the trees, dulling the limestone’s sheen, draping the field below. . . . The night air cooled quickly. He extinguished the fire with dirt, lit a Lucky, and reclined. Maybe he’d stay here a couple of days. Home wasn’t going anywhere, and wasn’t all that much anyway—two hundred people in the woods, their houses linked by dirt roads and paths along the ridgelines.

An outdoors survivalist, Tucker is also simply a survivor. His instinct for self-preservation honed by his Special Ops training for Korea, he proves himself capable of acts of ruthless violence to protect himself and his family.

The death toll in Country Dark is relatively small for a “noir” novel, but the seventeen-year span of the narrative is punctuated regularly by Tucker’s weaponizing his wits with knives, guns, and even a hornet nest. Insulated by the covers of the book, the reader may at times feel like a voyeur looking in a window at a world and a life foreign to mainstream sensibilities. Yet, Offutt’s authorial vision actually expands the reader’s view of the world. Recognizing that there is not a single instance of gratuitous violence in the novel, I inevitably recalled an observation made by Flannery O’Connor, in many ways the literary foremother of a “semi-Southern, kinda-gothic, dramatic writer” like Offutt:

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With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially. . . . Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.

As he makes clear in the stable life he grants to Tucker in the epilogue to Country Dark, Offutt subscribes fundamentally to this principle.

While the violence in Jake Hinkson’s Dry County is concentrated mostly toward the end of the narrative (though it simmers throughout), that novel shares with Offutt’s a literary quality described by John Gardner that likewise elevates it far beyond cultural voyeurism:

Accurate imitation of the world gives pleasure, and the pleasure can be intense when we encounter accurate imitation by a writer with a gift for noticing in conventional settings precisely those details that most people miss, or a gift for choosing to describe those settings that others never would have thought to describe. . . . [T]he truth of place . . . gives increased weight, increased authority, a certain metaphysical conviction to his probing of larger questions.

Jake Hinkson

The world of Hinkson’s novel is a small town in Arkansas. Centered around Richard Weatherford, a Southern Baptist preacher who is called to pay for a past indiscretion whose disclosure would destroy him, his family, and his church, Dry County spreads its darkness both wide and deep within its satisfyingly knotted community of characters. The narrative comprises two distinct plots that eventually merge: the attempt by two troubled teenagers to extort cash from Brother Weatherford so they can escape their backwater life and the preacher’s fraught attempt to secure that cash from an investor he has opposed on an upcoming special ballot involving the sale of alcohol in the county. Deploying a finely calibrated polyphonic narrative—the first-person voices of those four principals as well as Weatherford’s long-suffering wife—Hinkson allows his characters to reveal to the reader, if not always fully to themselves, the nature of their individual Thoreauvian “lives of quiet desperation.”

Perhaps predictably, the novel makes blatant through the person of Brother Weatherford the latent hypocrisy of evangelical Christianity—in the leadup to the 2016 federal election, no less. (Ted Cruz is still in the running!)  And indeed, unlike Offutt’s Tucker, Hinkson’s protagonist has nothing to redeem him beyond what he continues to represent to the members

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of his congregation like the father of the young man who tried to extort him, the circumstances of his son’s malevolently orchestrated death still impenetrable a year later:

This man has been broken by life’s cruelty, brutalized by the universe’s utter indifference to his suffering. He needs something to hold on to, needs someone to hold him up so that he does not disappear into the darkest regions of human despair.

He needs me.

The catalyst for even more deaths than Tucker in Country Dark, Hinkson’s protagonist—despite experiencing a profound crisis of faith—remains perpetually trapped in the persona of Brother Weatherford, a Southern Baptist preacher in a small town in Arkansas. The truth of place?  Darkness visible.

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