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The Great American Road Trip
Book: No Heroes by Chris Offutt
“Kentuckians have a long tradition of going west for a new life and winding up homesick instead.” Chris Offutt
This memoir by Chris Offutt tells about his homecoming to the Appalachian area of Kentucky, where he takes a teaching job at Morehead State University. He passes on a separate tale in scattered chapters when he interviews his wife’s parents about their life in slave labor and concentration camps during World War II. Either of these stories–the attempt at returning to his boyhood home, and the stories of survival–would make a good book. At one point his father-in-law worries about how Chris is going to meld these two pieces together, and Offutt muses that maybe at the end they will come together. They do. Sort of. It is a remark of the concentration camp survivor that leads to the title [amazonify]0684865513::text:::: No Heroes [/amazonify].
In the prologue, Offutt sketches life as a hillbilly. (It is alright to call him that–that is what he calls himself and his friends.) When you return home, he says:
Make sure you drive a rusty pickup that runs like a sewing machine, flies low on the straight stretch, and hauls block up a creek bed. Hang dice from the mirror and a gun rack in the back window. A rifle isn’t necessary, but something needs to be there–a pool cue, a carpenter’s level, an ax handle.
He goes on like this for three more pages and has the reader laughing out loud–or at least this reader was guffawing. But I was not making fun of the backwoods boys, because the behavior and habits of these people frequently sounded like a description of the small town in Ohio that I grew up in. I laughed because anybody who has lived in a small town, particularly one slightly isolated by geography, can relate.
Kentucky hill towns have some rougher edges and definitely more poverty than the area where I grew up, but still–the similarity was there. And while Offutt frequently waxes poetic about the hills and woods, it is the people and human traits in general that attract the reader. And to me, this was what ties together the stories from the Holocaust with the stories of a forty-year-old trying to return to his youth. The stories are all about people and how they treat each other, and what they believe and what they hope for, or how they have given up hope.
One reviewer, Charles May, a professor emeritus from University of California Long Beach, says that Offutt “understands and respects his characters.” (You can see an analysis of Offutt’s short stories at May’s blog.) Respect, perhaps, but surely Morehead State was not too happy about their portrayal in this book. They have been named one of the best small universities in the nation by U. S. News and World Report for several years running, but Offutt portrays the school as being (when he was teaching there) backward and ill-equipped.
Offutt has carved a niche as the hometown Kentucky writer for his generation, and has books of short stories and other full-length books that mine the hillbilly culture. Now we can also think of his books as travel books for road trip planning for a stop in Kentucky.
And what would Kentucky be without its music? Music Road tells us about two musicians who make great Road Trip Music for the mountains or any other part of Kentucky. Music Road partners with A Traveler’s Library for this trip around the country and shares a wealth of American music.
Have you considered a road trip to Kentucky? Where would you head? Bluegrass country to see race horses? Bourbon manufacture? Daniel Boone’s history? or the hills of Appalachia?
Just a little reminder that anything that you purchase at Amazon when you use a link from this blog, earns me a few cents and helps keep the lights on at the Traveler’s Library. The small town photo is from a University of Kentucky web page and was taken by a student. Click on the photo to see the accompanying article.