No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home
By Chris Offutt
(Simon & Schuster: New York)
Chris Offutt is one of the finest short-story writers of his generation. He's a 42-year-old father, a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, a renowned memoirist (The Same River Twice), the author of two highly praised short-story collections (Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods) and a novel (The Good Brother).
Above all, no matter where he lives, Offutt is a Kentuckian.
Homesickness, the search for roots in a rootless world and the exile of a self-proclaimed backwoods boy are the subjects that saturate his fiction and that now come to the forefront in his newest book, No Heroes. With characteristic economic prose, razor-sharp metaphors and brittle character studies, Offutt tackles a subject that most often winds up long-winded and sentimental: Can we go home again?
In 1998, Offutt attempted just that -- he packed up his family and headed to eastern Kentucky and Morehead University, the only four-year college in Appalachia, seeking a job, spiritual resolution and permanent homecoming. No Heroes is the story of his reunification with old friends and the region, and it is the story of deep loss. His hometown of Haldeman, pop. 200, up the road from "town" and Morehead, no longer exists. He is still estranged from his aging parents. And over time Offutt discovers that what he holds dear, what he holds in common with the people and places of extreme eastern Kentucky are mostly memories. He finds a home in the woods behind his house, but also finds his wife, his kids and himself strangers in his beloved homeland.
At the same time, the author is deeply involved in taking down the oral histories of his parents-in-law, Arthur and Irene, both Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and a long string of concentration camps. In No Heroes, he intersperses chapters in the voices of Arthur and Irene with his very personal memoir and miraculously succeeds at creating a lucid and powerful book by discovering its theme as he goes along -- the loneliness of exile.
The Independent caught up with Offutt at his Iowa home recently, and talked to him just before he left on an East Coast and Midwest tour to promote the book.
Indy: What is it about Kentucky and this pervasive homesickness? (In the interest of disclosure, the interviewer is a displaced Kentuckian too and has been homesick most of her life.)
Offutt: You know what Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor said: "Every Kentuckian is either going home or thinking about it." It's true, isn't it?
For me, it's the woods. I went to New Mexico for awhile. It's a beautiful place; I really responded to it. But there was no green. I realized [it was the woods] on this last trip. I wrote quite a bit in the woods, longhand on notebooks. I'd hide folding camp chairs in the woods and sit and write until my legs cramped up, then get up and walk around. I found myself spending more time there than any place else.
You don't meet many Kentuckians in other parts of the country. Have you noticed that? They don't leave much.
Indy: Who are your favorite short-story writers, living and dead?
Offutt: Flannery O'Connor. I think she's tough to beat. I like Hemingway. He's not politically correct, but he could sure write a good story. I think Toby [Tobias] Wolff is probably the best living short-story writer -- well, not the best, but among my favorites. I like the book Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. And there's a tremendous amount of good stuff being written by young women -- well, not young but younger than me -- by Julia Slavin, Aimee Bender. They're very willing to be bold with form. I like Mary Hood, a Georgia writer who I think is a very underappreciated short-story writer.
Indy: Regarding No Heroes, I couldn't see how you would pull the elements of the book together. What's the uniting factor, the link between your story of homecoming and exile and your in-laws' story of surviving the Holocaust?
Offutt: I don't know. That was the narrative challenge I set up for myself. I didn't know if it was gonna work. I thought I'd do it because it interested me, and it might just flop.
Eventually, I started realizing the theme was exile, not that my experience and theirs can be compared, but that was the thread.
Once I left Appalachia, I experienced what many immigrants experience -- shame and pride, wanting to identify with the place I was from but wanting to erase the marks of my identity that linked me to the place.
There was a desire to be careful who I revealed [my roots] to. I went through a period of telling people I was from Texas. Dallas was really popular then. I was a waiter and it got me big tips. Hell, I shouldn't be telling that to a journalist, but it's the truth. Later I got proud about being a Kentuckian and just threw it in everybody's face, you know, 'Hey, buddy, I'm from Kentucky and if you don't like it you can ...'
Indy: Did you think the book would work?
Offutt: I had confidence in myself as a writer, in my ability to put together sentences, but I didn't have confidence that what I was doing would work. Last night I pulled the book off the shelf and I started reading one page and just put it back and said, 'Oh Lord, what have I done?'
Offutt: Because it's so personal. This is really personal stuff.
Indy: Well, yes. And Arthur and Irene's stories are so raw and powerful.
Offutt: They are. And I think every survivor's story is just as powerful. There's all this terrible mix of pure luck that they lived, coupled with their own will and their constant anticipation of lethal menace and how they could save themselves for the moment.
Indy: How did Arthur and Irene respond to the book when it was finished?
Offutt: Arthur loves the book. But he's much more consumed now with current world events.
Indy: You have a wonderful way with rough characters like your buddy Harley in the book, and depicting bad-ass guys.
Offutt: Hey, I'm a guy who wears slippers all day and doesn't leave the house. I was always the biggest sissy on the hill.
I've known Harley all my life. When I was growing up, we all lived in the hills and a bunch of us brothers all paired up. We had reasons to not want to spend time in our houses, so we spent all our time together, outside. We all had a buddy, somebody else's brother. I think that prevented us from fighting so much.
Indy: There's a great line in the book about friendship: "We knew the secrets of each other's scars."
Offutt: You like that? I almost cut that line. But yeah, it was meaningful to me. What was really touching was that when I went back, some of these guys I hadn't seen in 10 or 15 years, it was like I had just gone to town or something and had come back. After all that time they still acted like they knew me.
At a certain point, though, I realized that what I had in common with them was the past, that we hadn't experienced anywhere near the same things in between when we were young and now. They don't read books and I write 'em. That's just the way it is.
Indy: Tell me about that stuffed possum on the cover of the book.
Offutt: It was given to me by the widow of a guy I was really close to. He had a seventh-grade education. He was very proud of having completely read a book -- only one book in his life -- but he was one of smartest people I ever knew in my life. He was older than me, about 60. His widow gave me that possum. She said, "You're the only one who liked it."
Everybody's scared of possums. I don't know why. I don't think they ever hurt anybody. People are afraid of the unknown, whether it's a possum, a Kentuckian or a Jew. (Laughs.)