No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’ve lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.

Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

4 Responses

  1. […] I am, blogging! But she listed several I love, by Kimmel, Bechdel, and Bragg; Dillard, Williams, Offutt; titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, […]

  2. Thanks for the suggestion; this is a compelling, intimate, raw memoir. His candid perspective, softened by humor & humility, is a well-honed gift. And I would add…

    Aside from his straight narrative, his colorful depiction of characters strongly portrays place & culture. These are the people in Rowan county who he has known for decades and comprise the ‘home’ he seeks to find in returning. They appear at his every turn, reminding of a past that he rose above even as it was vanishing – and yet he yearns to relive it. His frequent use of dialogue personalizes & focuses the brief vignettes in which they appear.

    Only a few examples, from those who are named: Billy & Otis in maintenance; Vondelle the real estate agent from his college party crowd; Mrs Jayne, his favorite teacher for whom he serves as pallbearer, after she lovingly greets his return; Frankie the inspiring librarian of his youth, who now reads also to his sons; his students Eugene & Sandra, who demonstrate both the promise & challenge of his self-imposed mission; old buddy Harley, as much as any, stuck in that past that could have been Offutt’s fate also; Michael, his ‘best friend’ of the 12 childhood ‘Haldeman boys’, seen here only in the empty space left by suicide; ‘Nine-Mile’, iconic high school star athlete who has risen no further; Jimmy Joe, high school rock-idol who now capsulizes the ‘comfort of familiarity’; friend-girl Lena, with whom he exchanges unspoken fantasies of unrealized high school romance.

    And I must say that Offutt and these people revived fragments of my own past – although these fragments together illustrate a much different path than his own: Dean, whose nurturing Cajun family (singular, in my then-monochrome world) nearly hosted me for senior year when my family moved away; Jerry, Dale, Bob, Nancy & others, who helped me navigate two transformative years of integrated, working-class, small-town Midwest; Steve from a hollow in NC & Frank from a factory in Ohio, fellow industrial gladiators who shared a world of cars & guns; Dean, Sandra, Yolanda, Irma & others, my guides to a rainbow of skin color; and Jimmy, a farmer on a small backwater plot in central Texas, whose family story reveals there are ‘hollows’ in all corners of this country.

    And of course I loved his affection for the woods, the way he takes refuge there, and finds inspiration there. Often he reveals this as descriptive background for events & memories. The interludes when he describes those woods directly, and his deep affinity for all it means, are treasures.

    • Lovely, lovely!! Thank you for sharing your impressions and this list of people from your own past – take notes. It’s good history to have. I’m glad you found this one. From what you loved of this book, though, I think you really should give Bearwallow a try – I think you’d love it.

  3. […] book I’ve read in the new year and it is a big winner. I read Offutt’s No Heroes some years ago, and I have a few clear memories of it – and I gave it an 8 – but I have […]

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