Just published: My Three Suicides: A Success Story...

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Personal Excursion through "Redneck Noir," Part 1: John O'Brien vs Chris Offutt

By Hugh Gilmore

Chris Offutt
            My late great friend John O'Brien used to get angry whenever I mentioned the Kentucky writer Chris Offutt. "Southern Gothic!" he'd say, "I hate those guys. They're exploiters." He'd get genuinely worked up if I didn't change the subject.
            Like myself, John grew up mostly (5th grade to high school graduation) in Colwyn, a small mill town just across the Cobbs Creek Bridge from southwest Philadelphia – and conveniently in sight and downwind of the famous Fels-Naptha plant.
           He also had roots in West Virginia since both his parents (and their parents, etc) were from Piedmont and the O'Brien family was notable for having retained a lot of their country ways. They ate cold Cream of Wheat, for example, and owned rifles and went hunting and fishing, and ate deer and rabbits and squirrels. They walked everywhere, even though they had a car. There were somewhere between nine and eleven children in the family, only the oldest five of which I knew, the rest having come along after we left home. Although we all lived on the edge of the city, their family had a sweet, gently folksy way about them.
            More than any of the kids in his family John developed a love of nature and a deep affection for the life "back home" in West Virginia. He'd been an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of West Virginia, intending to be a forest ranger. About halfway through he switched over to wanting to be a fiction writer. He was good enough to be accepted to the University of Iowa Writers Program. After graduating, he received a Stegner Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Program. Also, lots of writer-in-residence positions at colleges and universities. Mostly, he wrote short stories that were published in numerous prestigious journals. He knew lots of up-and-coming authors, many of them as drinking buddies, including Raymond Carver, now acknowledged as one of the best short fiction writers of that era.
            For about the last dozen years of his life John had moved back to West Virginia, first to a town named Franklin, where his wife, Becky had her roots, and then to a place named Green Bank.
            After a typical adult male contact lapse of about 20 years, John and I resumed our friendship in 2001. Here's how, and John didn't like the first part of it: I had read two books by Chris Offutt and really liked them and was hoping to find more. Borders in Chestnut Hill didn't have any. I was on the University of Pennsylvania campus one afternoon and decided to try Penn Books. Chris Offutt, originally from Kentucky, is another "regional" writer who graduated from, and later taught at, the University of Iowa Writers Program. Offutt's books are short stories set in contemporary, nitty-gritty backwoods, down-in-the-holler Kentucky. The characters are fallible, drawn to alternative interpretations of the legal code, and possessed of really good what I'll call "creek smarts." They're also well written, gripping, and quite enjoyable.
      Penn Books had no Offutt in Literature, so I tried the memoir section since I thought he'd written a memoir. And right there, given the alphabetical nature of bookstore shelves, right where Offutt might have been, I saw the name "John O'Brien" on a book's spine. I pulled the book, titled, "At Home in the Heart of Appalachia."
            I'll be darned, I thought. I felt so happy for John. I bought his book and read it over the next two days. "At Home" is as sweet, complicated, funny, and angry as John himself. You might call it a love song to a battered bride, the bride being the state of West Virginia, the battering being its long and tortured history of being exploited like a third-world colony by the rest of America. John interweaves his personal history, especially with his father, with his attempts to go back and make peace with, while he tries to settle in with, the people he knew and loved back in West Virginia.
            I felt uncomfortable calling him after so many years, so I poked around on the Internet until I found what might be an e-mail address for John. I sent an exploratory greeting.
            Two days later, a Saturday when by some miracle my bookshop had no customers for an hour, John telephoned. We had just started talking when he said, "Wait a minute, before we go on, I have to tell you something. I'm fighting cancer right now." And he told me the details and we dropped them for the time being and had a great talk for an hour. Among other things, we agreed I should come down to Green Bank and stay with him and Becky for a few days.
            A few weeks later I took an Amtrak train to White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia. At John's request, I'd brought a cooler filled with hoagie fixings and Tastykakes and a bottle of single malt whiskey. John and Becky awaited me. I was startled by John's appearance. The skinny, curly haired friend of my youth now looked like a huge reincarnation of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." Fat, bald, but flashing those same brilliant blue eyes and that dazzling white smile. We had a lot of catching up to do.
Hugh's two new books, "Scenes from a Bookshop," and "Malcolm's Wine" are available through Amazon.com and independent bookstores everywhere.