“Country Dark,” Chris Offutt’s return to fiction, is an ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing tale. Set in rural Kentucky during the ’60s and ’70s, Offutt attempts to interrogate a number of social issues — poverty, post-traumatic stress disorder, incarceration, violence — but the result leaves much to be desired.
“Country Dark” follows Tucker, Rhonda and their five young children, four of whom have intellectual or physical disabilities. Two social workers investigate the family. Midway through the novel, Tucker murders one of the social workers because he threatens to put Tucker and Rhonda’s children in the state’s care. Tucker is subsequently sent to jail. He returns home, seemingly unchanged. Rhonda cares for their children, some of whom are eventually taken from her. Tucker comes home, and the novel ends. No one in this book is especially invested in what happens to themselves, and it’s that lack of interest and agency that ultimately sabotages “Country Dark.”
If there’s one thing “Country Dark” does well, however, it’s to create a sense of place. Offutt, who was born and raised in Kentucky, describes the setting of “Country Dark” with intimate attention to detail. “The world appeared for the first time beautiful,” Offutt writes. “The air scoured of dust by the rain, each surface holding a sheen of water like a tiny prism on every leaf.” That close, familiar description deposits the reader into an easily imaginable world. Unfortunately, it’s a world populated by people who resemble robots.
Offutt is certainly a talented writer in many respects, but he struggles to create three-dimensional characters. His female characters are especially lackluster. Of Rhonda, Offutt writes: “She wondered if their children would have his eyes. She took his hand and silently vowed to stay near him forever. She would never forsake this man.” For context, this scene occurs the day after Rhonda and Tucker meet. The pace of the novel is arbitrary and confusing; even a traumatized 14-year-old girl seems unlikely to pledge her life to a boy she’s just met. There’s nothing surprising, lifelike or transgressive about Offutt’s characters. “The storm would pass,” Offutt writes. “And (Tucker) didn’t care one way or another.” Why doesn’t he care? He should care! For readers to care about characters, the characters themselves must care. One keeps hoping Offutt will give his characters some humanity, but instead they seem to float through their lives with no internal reasoning or complexities, their emotions simple and surface-level. Everything is as it seems.
It should be noted that “Country Dark” is a novel propelled by violence, an authorial choice that always puts the writer to task. If violence is to be a central theme, it must be justified — in the formal of social commentary, insightfulness or even character development. Unfortunately, the violence in “Country Dark” is simply a foreboding and often indiscriminate presence. The world is violent, certainly — but what do we do with that violence? How to we come to terms with it, or explain it, or understand it? These are questions raised by “Country Dark,” but not ones it offers any meaningful answers to.