cover image The Good Brother

The Good Brother

Chris Offutt. Simon & Schuster, $22.5 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80983-0

His raw, mystical tales of life in the Kentucky backwoods in his short-story collection Kentucky Straight, earned Offutt a Whiting Award. In his eagerly awaited first novel (he is also the author of a memoir, The Same River Twice), Offutt seems torn between capitalizing on his established strengths--an extraordinary ear for rural dialogue and a talent for conjuring the beauty of his native Appalachian hills--and breaking out of the regional writer mold by way of a ripped-from-the-headlines plot involving paramilitary political extremists. Set half in the tiny town of Blizzard, Ky., and half in the Montana countryside, it tells the story of 32-year-old Virgil Caudhill, forced to decide whether or not to avenge the murder of his older brother, Boyd. In the Caudhill family, Boyd, a hard drinker and general mischief maker, was ""the restless one, the wild brother,"" while Virgil was the steady one, with a job on the town maintenance crew and a girlfriend he planned to marry. Boyd's killing, however, irrevocably shatters Virgil's safe existence, and the action he chooses in its wake changes his life forever, forcing him to leave his home and remake his existence in Montana. There he falls in love with the beautiful, enigmatic widow Botree, who has connections with the Buffalo Bills, a group of militant right-wingers gearing up for armed conflict. The Bills' not-so-subtle recruiting efforts occasion further soul-searching in poor Virgil, who sees parallels between the Bills' macho culture and Boyd's outlaw recklessness. Will Virgil follow in the footsteps of his larger-than-life brother? In the end, Virgil's earnest ditherings veer the novel into tedium, despite the abundant pleasures offered by the accomplished prose and the fascinating glimpses into an ideological fringe. Major ad/promo; author tour. (June)