No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home
By Chris Offutt (Simon & Schuster, 268 pp., $24)
Appearing 7 p.m. April 29 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
In 1993, Chris Offutt published a memoir called The Same River Twice, a narrative that traced the author’s coming of age as he hitchhiked his way out of Kentucky, heading for parts north. With only one book under his belt, Offutt had a hard-edged, realistic style honed by life in Appalachia, and a tone that was raw-boned yet full-bodieda voice in which the complexities of the South were distilled. The New Yorker called his innocence-to-experience odyssey “the memoir of the decade.”
Since the ’90s turned out to be the decade of the memoir, this was high praise indeed. As everyone knows, 1999 groaned to a close under a landslide of tell-all autobiographies. Survey the titles, and what you have is a catalog of maladies and calamities, therapies and analyses, as though the century itself were sick. Long-suffering authors turned writing into a form of rehabilitation. Epiphanies were no longer personal; they were had, like addictions and diseases and unrepressed memories, in order to be publicized.
So what made Offutt different from the rest of the diarists? Aside from his abundant talents as a writer, there was no sense that he was airing his ailments. In an era of illness, his memoir felt like an antidote, offering fresh revelations on nearly every page, as well as the feeling that Offutt didn’t consider himself the star of the storymerely part of it. This same self-effacing quality pervades his new memoir, No Heroes, a continuation of his quest for homea journey that seems as if it might never end. On the brink of turning 40, Offutt confesses that he and his wife Rita have relocated every year for the last decade. Now he is returning to Rowan County, Ky., where he was born and raised, to take a creative writing position at Morehead State University, bringing his family, which includes his two young sons, back to the hills for good. Or so he hopes.
The only four-year university in the area, Morehead State is hardly a prestigious institution. “A high school with ash trays” is how the author describes it. “I should know,” he says. “Twenty years ago I graduated from there.” At his alma mater, Offutt hopes to infect his underexposed students with a love of literature, all too aware of the challenges he faces in a county where 30 percent of the population is illiterate. One of his pupils has never owned a dictionary or set foot in a bookstore. Hoping to improve this little patch of Appalachia, Offuttnervous and earnest at his new postenvisions himself as something of a hero.
Outside the classroom, he encounters folks he’s known since childhood, including his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Jayne, and Harley, a fellow hell-raiser from his younger days, now a full-blown layabout who still sneaks into the woods to get high. Most of the reunions that occur around town are marked by a blend of hilarity and melancholy; old memories intoxicate, but they leave an aftertaste of age. For Offutt, a narrative of the past runs through the present, ingrained in the geography of the region itself. From the public library, where the cards in the books still bear his name, to the ridges and hollows he haunted as a teen, skipping school and smoking pot, every corner of Rowan County comes with an anecdote attached, with the past appended.
When Rita’s parents, Arthur and Irene, visit from New York City, the book takes an unexpected turn. Both are Polish immigrants who survived Nazi concentration camps, and the author convinces them to share their recollections in detail for the first time. In short, alternating chapters, they recount their experiences during the Holocaust. Lean and uncluttered, characterized by an icy clarity, each brief entry in their remarkable story achieves a kind of poetry. A darkly fascinating record of dispossession, separation and loss, of reunion and romance, their narrative nearly upstages Offutt’s own. Their disclosure, however, has devastating effects upon Rita, who learns for the first time the full extent to which her parents suffered during the war. “Maybe you can tell her it wasn’t as bad as you made it sound,” Offutt suggests to Arthur. “It wasn’t,” he replies. “It was much, much worse.”
By fusing his own story with that of his in-laws, Offutt has created an improbable hybrid of a book. Yet the synthesis succeeds. In a memoir that is, in the end, a meditation on the nature of home and identity, on how we manage the burden of the past, the disparate accounts make natural companion pieces. Their pairing emphasizes part of what the author learns from his return to the hillsthat memory has no mercy, that in real life, heroes are hard to come by.
“Most glaringly absent from eastern Kentucky is a sense of pride. I hoped to fix that,” Offutt says of his homecoming. But it takes less than a year of teaching for him to realize the impossibility of his goalof trying to alter in a few months patterns established over the course of countless generations. He can’t, in other words, change history. By the end of the book, Offutthumbled by his own heritageis still wrestling with the complexities of finding a place in the world, still wondering to what degree where we are equals who we are.
His insights into Southern life are, as always, priceless. The book’s prologue consists of his advice to all those citified mountain boys who decide to reclaim their rural roots. To reintegrate themselves into country culture, he suggests they shed any semblance of their sophisticated selves. He offers guidelines on what they should leave in the citythe tuxedo, the foreign carand what they should bring back home, including CDs of just about every musical genre, because “Jazz in the hills is a verb, and pop is what you drink.... Soul is the province of the preacher, and the blues is what going to town will fix.” And Offutt ain’t kidding. The prologue is a four-page tour de force, a tribute to life in Appalachia that unfolds like one long song: “That sunset walk over Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t hold a candle to crossing Lick Fork Creek on a one-man swaying bridge,” he reminds readers. “Fine dining will make you fat, but fresh butter on cornbread will make you cry.”
As Offutt gets older, his books get wiser, and No Heroes may be his smartest yet. He reads 7 p.m. Monday at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
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