cover image Out of the Woods: Stories

Out of the Woods: Stories

Chris Offutt. Simon & Schuster, $21 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-684-82556-4

Missing Kentucky, even when one lives there, is the emotional linchpin of the nine spare and stunning stories in this second collection by Offutt (Kentucky Straight; The Good Brother). Many of the entries previously appeared in magazines such as Esquire and Granta; ""Melungeons"" has been included in Best American Short Stories 1994. All deal with the magnetic pull of the Kentucky hills on those born there, and while a common theme enriches the cyclical nature of the collection, its repetitiveness sometimes makes one wish for a change of focus. Some narratives are straightforward: in ""Darla,"" the eponymous protagonist returns to the hills after 30 years in Ohio, realizing that's where she belongs only after a real estate agent presses her to sell out. Other tales are more intricate. A Kentucky trucker washes up in an Oregon flood in ""High Water Everywhere,"" then decides to go back to the hills after encountering a deputy sheriff who has resisted the impulse to leave his native turf because he knows everybody's intimate lives, and ""the knowing keeps me here."" ""Two-Eleven All Around"" plumbs a well of dark humor when the divorced narrator discovers ""you raise someone else's [kids] while a stranger takes care of yours."" From the protagonist of ""Out of the Woods,"" who's never left his Kentucky county before, to the narrator of ""Tough People,"" who learns in Montana that he's ruined for going back, the stories all resonate with isolation and lawlessness born in the Kentucky hills. These stories deserve to be parceled out, savored separately. Agent, Brandt & Brandt. (Jan.) FYI: Offutt has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award.