A Memoir of Coming Home
By Chris Offutt
Simon & Schuster, 268 pp., $24
The chronology's a little fuzzy, but author Chris Offutt left his home in eastern Kentucky a total of five times only to return five times over the course of some 20 years. The first time he left was to attend the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop. The last time he left was to teach at the Writers' Workshop. And somewhere in all this coming and going he got married, fathered two sons, and produced a body of work that would be any author's envy: a debut collection of short stories, Kentucky Straight (1992), which gained him tons of notice; a memoir, The Same River Twice (1993), which an eager New Yorker called "the memoir of the decade"; and a novel, The Good Brother (1997), and a short-story collection, Out Of the Woods (1999), both of which The New York Times named Notable Books of the Year.
But just shy of his 40th birthday, before Iowa's invitation to join its faculty, Offutt returned to Kentucky to teach in a county where some 30 percent of the population is still functionally illiterate. The school was his Appalachian alma mater, Morehead State University, and its reputation clearly wasn't Iowa's. Offutt, in his new, highly heartfelt memoir, No Heroes, calls it "a high school with ashtrays."
What was he doing home -- again? Basically, giving. Giving model to students in a region that "offers no models for success ... no tangible life beyond the county line." Giving Rita, his New Yorker wife, a house in the hills the couple couldn't possibly have afforded elsewhere. Giving Sam and James, his sons, a taste of the natural world which inspires and still nurtures their father. And giving himself some chance with his own father. "My biggest source of pain," the author says to his father in the book's quiet, climactic scene, "is the tension between us. I hoped that coming home would help fix it." It does not. Offutt's father turns his back. Offutt is silenced. But Rita's father, Arthur Gross, in No Heroes' parallel narrative, is not.
The subject of that narrative: the Holocaust; the story: Arthur and wife Irene Gross' separate survival as Polish Jews. Arthur is now in Queens, New York. Offutt in Kentucky is respectful but coaxing, reassuring, recording Arthur on tape. Arthur's one stipulation to his writer son-in-law: no heroes, the same unspoken code, strangely enough, stipulated in Offutt's Kentucky hills. It's just that simple, and Arthur's and Irene's suffering is just that terrible: one man and woman with no reason to believe they should outlive the millions who did not.
Offutt himself writes that he has had some difficulty squaring the two lines of inquiry: the author's own homecoming and recalling of past joys, past sorrows, past times with running buddies and run-ins with authorities, past teachers who encouraged and discouraged him, past moments of a very private clarity he finds only in the woods versus his father-in-law's forced leave-taking of home in Poland and incarceration in a succession of concentration camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. You'll sense the tension too, until maybe some pattern presents itself ("emerges" is perhaps too strong a word): "I had never abandoned Kentucky," Offutt writes early on. "There was no pattern of departure and return, only the seasonal cycle of death and life."
The emphasis here: death and life, not life and death. And as for the heroic? Don't call life in eastern Kentucky or even inside the death camps anything of the kind. "Heroes are not human," Arthur Gross remarks. Offutt in No Heroes writes as reminder.
Chris Offutt will be signing No Heroes in Memphis at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Wednesday, April 17th, at 7 p.m. and in Oxford at Square Books on Thursday, April 18th, at 5:30 p.m. Those dates follow on the heels of the ninth annual Oxford Conference for the Book, which runs April 11th through the 14th on the campus of the University of Mississippi. The four-day event is this year dedicated to Tennessee Williams, with Williams scholar W. Kenneth Holditch and New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow (co-editors of the recent two-volume Library of America edition of Williams' complete plays) discussing the playwright on Sunday afternoon.
As with past conferences, though, a variety of writers' panels, booksignings, readings, and get-togethers make up the weekend. Included among the novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, and editors scheduled to be on hand: Richard Flanagan, Tom Franklin, Barry Hannah, Rick Moody, Paula Vogel, Jack Nelson, and Thomas Oliphant. A screening of the new film Big Bad Love, based on the collection of stories by Larry Brown of the same name, will take place on Thursday evening with Brown, actor-director Arliss Howard, and one of the film's stars, Debra Winger, discussing the film beforehand.
Most events are free and open to the public, but preregistration is advised. For more information, contact the Center for the Study of Southern Culture by phone (662-915-5993), by fax (662-915-5814), or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).