No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home by Chris Offutt
Simon & Schuster 2002 268 pp. 24.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Chris Offutt is a regional writer of national fame. His fiction and a memoir, The Same River Twice, have been praised for their emotional sensitivity and literary skill. In his new book, No Heroes, he returns, literally, to the Kentucky hills of his birth, producing an accomplished but exceedingly odd book.
Offutt is a hillbilly with an education. His passion for knowledge paved a road out of the hills and into an urban, sophisticated life. What he can’t deny, despite the responsibility of a wife and two children, is the need to return to his birthplace, Rowan Country, Kentucky. “Landscape is imprinted in me with such ferocity that my very marrow is made of earth.”
Such a return is made possible owing to a job offer from Morehead State University. School boosters will be delighted to learn that Offutt describes the place as “a high school with ashtrays” set in “an Appalachian town of six thousand with no airport, no bookstore, no deli, no record store, one bar, and forty churches.”
He wants to give something back, to perhaps inspire students with hope for a less provincial, unrefined life. Still, he appreciates the rugged spirit of the place. In Morehead, Kentucky, “poetry in the hills is found, not written. It lies in the handles of tools passed down through families, an ax sharpened so many times the blade is the size of a pocketknife.”
On his return, he encounters friends he hasn’t seen in thirty years. “To my neighbors I’d never left, but merely been visiting away for a spell.”
Yet, it’s a dismal place. “The Appalachian region claims no heroes, and the inhabitants have learned to live without the hope of one. During college I walked the streets of Morehead with a button pinned to my jacket that read ‘No Heroes.’ I wore it proudly, eager for everyone to see my late-seventies political stance. I read Rimbaud, listened to the Clash, and wore sleeveless cowboy shirts. I left to change the world, but as much as I tried, I was no hero, either.”
The reader is about to settle in to a meditation on returning home when Offutt throws a curve ball that lands in the dugout. Chris and his wife, Rita, are visited by her parents, New Yorkers Arthur and Irene, Polish Jews who suffered horribly in the concentration camps during World War II. During their visit, Offutt whips out his tape recorder, helping the couple give voice to an experience that most feel is unspeakable.
Inexplicably, Offutt then offers up a chapter from Arthur’s memory of the camps, followed by one from Irene. We then return to Offutt’s Kentucky for a chapter, and then it’s back to the camps, chapters alternating for the rest of the book. Imagine cutting up a D. M. Thomas account of the Holocaust and interleaving it with chapters of Rick Bragg speechifying about his relatives.
Arthur and Irene’s voices are rendered distinctly—they are simple, strong, intelligent people. However, the tone of their reminiscences is so at odds with Offutt’s Kentucky memories that one wonders what possible connection there could be between these two disparate stories. Sure, they’re both memories of the past, but whenever I was in a Kentucky chapter I found myself not wanting to turn the page, knowing that these resilient, worthy people were about to suffer another horrible indignity.
In the last few pages of the book, Offutt announces that he’s given the manuscript to his wife to read. “Since reading the manuscript three days ago, Rita has been profoundly depressed. She can’t sleep. She cries daily.” I wish I had learned of his wife’s reaction earlier in the book.
Mary Karr and Frank McCourt have made careers from the unappetizing details of their upbringing, transforming the ritual humiliations of a rough childhood through the magic of language. Had Offutt done the same, we could have been both entertained and instructed. In including the Holocaust narratives, Offutt has done his relatives the justice of immortalizing their stories, but he’s done so in a context that is seems to cheapen the magnitude of their suffering.