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On a Road From Kentucky

Tomes tell tales about a prodigal and life in Appalachia

IMAGINE a writer with the toughness of Thomas McGuane and the sensitivity of Wendell Berry. (Also, in their different ways, the toughness of Berry and the sensitivity of McGuane.) This is what one encounters in the first two books of Chris Offutt, a young writer who recently has had published just two months apart a collection of short stories and an autobiography - both of them remarkable.

In his descriptions of landscape and people, in the trueness of his dialogue, in the depth of his characters, and in his poignant (and sometimes painful) exploration of what it means to be an American male today, Offutt in his mid-30s shows great talent and potential.

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His more recent book - "The Same River Twice" - covers Offutt's life from the time he left the hills of Kentucky at age 19 with a backpack, $200, and a sack lunch his mother had packed, until he was accepted into the University of Iowa graduate writers program a dozen years later.

The journey is classic (another way of saying it could have been less than original), as the aspiring actor-playwright-poet-painter struggles to find his artistic voice in a world that is sometimes dangerous, usually depressing, and perpetually grimy. Also a world darkly humorous, which has the effect of frequently making one laugh and wince at the same time.

He heads first for New York City and spends extended periods in Boston. But most of the time he's on the road and on the run, working here and there, washing dishes, with a circus, in the Everglades. Mostly he hangs out with characters who can most charitably be described as "unsavory." At least once he's reduced to living in a shelter for the homeless. Never able to get started (much less succeed) in his other artistic endeavors, he keeps a journal, which becomes his most important possession and ultima tely forms the basis for what he calls "a memoir."

In the end, with $6 in his pocket, he realizes that the years spent mostly hitchhiking have been "a pathetic substitute for adventure," that his life so far has been a "pattern of repetitive exile ... a sequence of halfhearted attempts at self-destruction."

But there is more to it than titillation or shock value, more too than an ultimately tragic story of a young man on the road who winds up destroyed before middle age (as "beat" writer Jack Kerouac was a generation ago).

The device Offutt uses here is to contrast, in alternating chapters, the years of personal struggle and drift with the more recent gestation period as his wife carried their first child. Here, he's still searching, but the corner has been turned. He's a prodigal, returning to what he realizes is the best in life and in himself. In the end, one remembers his story as one of restoration and reconciliation, redemption and rebirth.

In "Kentucky Straight," nine short stories first seen in literary journals and collected for publication last November, Offutt tells dark, mysterious, and sometimes frightening tales of life in Appalachia. One is reminded of "Deliverance" (book and film) and also of Romulus Linney's potent play "Heathen Valley," in which a bishop tries to bring religion to a mountain community where violence and superstition are common.

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There also are tales here with strong moral messages like fidelity and tenacity in the face of grinding poverty and apparent hopelessness: A boy working to earn a general-equivalency diploma in a place where young people rarely finish high school; a young man helping a snakebit coal-company official when his inclination is to let him suffer.

Offutt writes about what he knows best, which is the place where he was born and raised and the people who inhabit that isolated world. These are wonderful stories - in the sense that one is filled with wonder at the ability of a writer to penetrate and then communicate a society and language that is becoming increasingly arcane.

One hopes that, having apparently worked himself out of a personal dark hole, Chris Offutt will go on to produce stories that match the promise of his beginning.

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