Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chris Offutt and William Gay: Transforming Rural Life into Art

In my last blog, on Donald Ray Pollock, I cited a reviewer who compared Pollock to two other “country” blue-collar writers, Chris Offutt and William Gay. It occurred to me that some of my readers might not be familiar with Offutt and Gay. It also occurred to me that readers might think I came down hard on Pollock simply because he wrote about poor mountain people in a realistic fashion. That’s not true. I don't like Pollock’s work because I do not think he used the power of language to write about people with some depth and complexity and therefore transform them from merely “real” people (whatever that is) into literary figures who suggested significance and universal meaning, rather than just plain meanness. Although Offutt and Gay also write about uneducated and sometimes hard-edged rural folk, because they are much better writers than Pollock, one can identify and sympathize with their characters. So I thought I would post this blog on Offutt and Gay’s work to try to distinguish it from Pollock’s writing.

Chris Offutt

The stories in Chris Offutt's first book, the well-received 1992 Kentucky Straight, were so firmly situated in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky that, Faulkner-like, he included a map, with story locations labeled. In Out of the Woods, his second collection, he moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the Eastern Kentucky hill country remains a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt's mountain men go, the hills haunt them.

Out of the Wood’s title story, about a thirty-year old man who has never been out of the county, is the best. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, Gerald agrees to drive an old pickup two days to pick up his wife's brother who has been shot and is in a hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska. While this may seem like a simple task, for a mountain man it is fraught with unease; the land in Indiana and Illinois is as flat as a playing card with no place to hide, and at night the sky seems to press down on Gerald in a threatening way. When he arrives to find his brother-in-law has died, Gerald meets the woman who shot him--marveling at her purple hair, the gold ring in her nose, and the fact that it all happened over a dispute over a blond wig.

Gerald makes some common-sense arrangements and a few man-to-man deals with the authorities and heads back to Kentucky with his brother-in-law's body in the back of the pickup, stopping once to mound a pile of rich Illinois topsoil for his garden on the body. This homey traveling grave becomes comically grotesque when Gerald stops at a gas station and a dog starts to dig in the dirt; the smell is so bad a man thinks Gerald is taking a dead hog to the renderers. In this carefully controlled account of a simple man's homey, heroic management of an extraordinarily ordinary situation, Gerald's final gesture is to tell a public lie--that Ory was accidentally shot--for the sake of his in-laws.

"Melungeons," which appeared in the 1994 Best American Short Stories collection, is another mountain story, told in the same understated way with a similar stoically heroic character. Not as powerful as "Out of the Woods," but more popular because of its "exotic" multicultural context, "Melungeons" is, on the one hand, a variation of the oldest subtype of the Kentucky mountain story--the family feud, ala the Hatfields and McCoys. On the other hand, because it deals with the Melungeons, a small mixed-race (native-American, African-American, white) tribe that live in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, it has a faddish appeal to the current literary craze for all things culturally marginal.

The focus of the story is on Deputy Ephraim Goins, who puts seventy-six-year-old Melungeon Haze Gibson in jail at his own request for his own protection. Gibson has left the mountains because of a family feud but now has returned because he has missed every wedding and funeral his family has ever had. Goins, also a Melungeon, has suffered racial prejudice, recalling being assigned to an all-black company when he was in the army when a dentist noticed his gums were tinged with blue. Scorned both by whites and blacks, Melungeons are thus doubly exiled and marginalized.

While Haze Gibson is one of the last of the older members of his family still alive, his nemesis, Beulah Mullins, one of the last old members of her clan, has heard he has returned. Never voted, never paid taxes, not off the mountain in fifty years, no record of her birth, Beulah makes the trip into town in answer to a bone-deep demand; over thirty people from the Mullins and the Gibson clans have died over the years in the feud that started sixty years before over disputed bear meat. She goes to the jail with a sawed-off shotgun hidden in her skirt, implacable in her duty, kills the last of the old Gibsons, and takes his place in the jail cell. Deputy Goins walks out of the jail and heads toward the nearest slope, having been called by this primitive ritual back to the hills from whence he came. The story is told in the restrained classical tones of mythic inevitability.

Chris Offutt understands and respects his characters. He does not exploit them as trendy exotics, nor does he revel in local color quaintness and meanness. Offutt is a carefully controlled craftsman who knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters, an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.

William Gay

Until a few years ago, William Gay, son of a sharecropper, was a fifty-five-year-old drywall hanger and carpenter working in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Now, without ever coming near an MFA program, he is one of those self-taught “overnight” successes (after piling up rejection slips for thirty years, receiving praise in The New York Times and The Washington Post from Tony Early and Madison Smartt Bell. How did that happen? The thirteen short stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, three of which were selected three years in a row for New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, may provide some answers.

What Gay has mastered, through his reading of other authors and lots of hard work at his own writing, is a mesmerizing mixture of the jagged and the smooth, the untutored and the carefully studied. The result is an illusion of gritty reality made meaningful by a stylized lyrical voice and painstaking artistic control. What you get in these stories are men who are ornery, stubborn, foolish, a bit dangerous—but they have been sorely tempted or pushed too far, and all of a sudden they find themselves driven headlong out of the ordinary into the hallucinatory.

In the title story, old man Meecham has walked out of a rest home, declaring, “It’s a factory where they make dead folks, and I ain’t workin there no more.” All he has to do is to get those no account white trash house out of his house. It’s not going to be easy. In “Sugarbaby,” a man shoots his wife’s dog because its constant “yip, yip, yip” was driving him crazy. But then his wife leaves him, her lawyers get after him, he has to hit a deputy on the head and burn his squad car. Things just go down hill after that.

Gay’s stories are an intriguing mixture of delta blues and country music. “Crossroads Blues,” in which a man is haunted by the ghost of Robert Johnson and an old murder in his trailer, is followed by “Closure and Roadkill on the Life’s Highway,” in which a guy whose woman has dropped out of his life meets an old man who says he has buried twenty thousand dollars in a cave above the Tennessee River and needs help getting it out.

Many of these men get into a mess because of women, sometimes with horrifying results, as in “The Paperhanger,” in which a guy flirts with the teasing wife of a rich Pakistani doctor whose four-year-old daughter disappears, only to come back gruesomely; and sometimes with black comic effects, as in “The Man Who Knew Dylan,” in which a man tries to help out a woman who keeps her mean old daddy’s body in the freezer for a few months in order to continue getting his checks.

Readers may initially be drawn to Gay because of his “working man” persona, but they will stay with him for his artistic ability to invent characters who sound authentic, even though they are highly stylized, and to tell stories reeking of messy reality, even though they are tightly controlled artifices.


Lee said...

Thanks for this - for me, new writers.

Breece D'J Pancake is another who wrote beautifully about rural folk.

TN-Tanuki said...

Good article on these fine practitioners of the short story. Another you might be interested in, if you haven't already read him, is Larry Brown. Like Pollock and Gay he was self-taught, but unlike Pollock he was genuine.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Tn-Tanuki. I like Larry Brown's stories. I agree; he is the genuine article.

Charles E. May said...

Always happy to hear from you, Lee. Yep, Breece D'J Pancake respects those about whom he writes. That makes all the difference, it seems to me.

Randy said...

Thanks for highlighting two of my favorite writers. I'll never forget "The Paperhanger", and "Melungeons" still seems as fresh in my mind today as when I read it years ago.

Pinckney Benedict's stories often fall into the same vein, though I would say he is a bit more macabre. I would also highly recommend James Lee Burke's "The Convict", Rick Bass's "The Watch", and Tom Franklin's "Poachers" as other excellent examples of stories depicting rural life as art.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Randy. I do know and admire the work of Benedict. I also have read the Burke, Bass, and Franklin stories you mention. All these writers are high on my list of writers always to read.

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