The Code of the Hills 

During my time in Missoula, I've come to rely on incidental occurrences to brush shoulders with area writers: elbowing up to a bar next to a garrulous gentleman who turns out to be the high-octane mystery writer Jim Crumley (thanks for the double); pressing flesh with [photo]
Chris Offut says he's looking forward to coming back to Montana.
James Lee Burke at the premiere of his movie Heaven's Prisoners; trying to sell Dick Manning - who left the Missoulian and become an author of environmental books - a car while working as a used-car salesman, one of the more surreal stints in my employment history.

But these meetings, by and large, have not spawned the sort of literary friendship as the one I have found myself in with Chris Offutt, whose first novel The Good Brother has just been published.

Offutt and I met because we share an interest, you might say, in gambling and its attendant subculture. I have been and, at times, still am a poker dealer at the esteemed Oxford Cafe, Bar & Poker Emporium. Offutt is a live-poker junkie with enough hardened, backwoods App-alachian Kentucky in him to appreciate the finer points of spending time at the multi-dimensional - and occasionally multi-delusional - Ox.

Offutt, who will see the age of 40 in the near future, is the author of a collection of short stories, a humorous and insightful memoir, and a brand new novel. In person, the author bears the characteristics of a man of the earth. He has dark hair and eyes, gruff features and an easy laugh that rumbles gently.

I'm happy to report that Offutt, whose latest is set partly in Missoula and the surrounding area, is returning to the Garden City after a two-year hiatus.

He told me, during a recent series of phone conversations, that he and his family are looking forward to reentering Montana life for the standard roll-call of attributes, including physical beauty, an engaging community and the proximity of other writers. I think he's homesick for the smoky back room in the Ox.

It takes a slightly skewed personality to intergrate into daily life at the Ox, where the patrons range from hard-boiled to flat-out weird. Underneath their colorful and varied exteriors, though, Ox people exude a genuiness that attracts like souls and perpetuates its own dominance.

Chris Offutt is a weird, genuine man; Joe Tiller, The Good Brother's protagonist, is weird and genuine as well. It's only natural that both of them would gravitate to the corner of Pine and Higgins when in Missoula - Offutt to the Ox and Tiller to the Wolf, an establishment with obvious origins as described in Offutt's latest work.

Just inside the door was a locked cabinet containing pints of liquor to go, and a long bar where a few men waited for the first drinks of the day. A rifle collection hung from pegs high on the wall. There was no clock. Most of the clientele looked as if they had long ago abandoned a life that revolved around being anywhere at a specific time. Beside the bar, several people were eating breakfast at a low counter. A man slept at a table. A dog slept by the door.

Like Chris Offutt, Joe Tiller hails from a nearly forgotten mining community of the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky. During the early 1900s, many towns in the region were supported by a booming coal industry. But when the coal ran out, the mining companies left, taking much of the communal infrastructure with them.

The inhabitants who remained returned to a rural subsistence lifestyle, immune to many of the developments of the 20th century. Offutt's fiction focuses, in part, on this isolation, and the questions of identity that arise when the present catches up with such communities. Offutt's equal concern for the effect of this conflict on the individual psyche is evident through his characters as well.

Kentucky Straight, Offutt's acclaimed 1992 debut, is a series of stories revolving around hill people surrounding the fictional town of Rocksalt. The characters, alternatingly bewildered, embittered and defiant, constantly struggle with notions - both imposed and self-generating - about their place in the world. in his memoir, The Same River Twice, Offutt provides a first-hand glimpse of life in the Kentucky hills.

My hometown is a zip code with a creek. We used to have a store but the man who ran it died. Long before my birth, a union invalidated the company scrip, shut the mines, and left a few men dead. Two hundred people live there now.

Our hills are the most isolated area of America, the subject of countless doctoral theses. It's an odd sensation to read about yourself as counterpart to the aborigine or Eskimo. If VISTA [a government agency charged with orchestrating the integration of these communities into the modern world, whether they wanted it or not. -ed.] wasn't bothering us, some clown was running around the hills with a tape recorder.

Strangers told us we spoke Elizabethan English, that we were contemporary ancestors to everyone else. They told us the correct way to pronounce 'Appalachia,' as if we didn't know where we'd been living for the past 300 years.

"It was a strange time," Offutt says of his homeland's history with the gift of clipped understatement that fills his prose.

Unlike his creator, who - as far as I know - is haunted by no ghosts but his own, Joe Tiller's fictional journey is an escape from the brutal cycle of clan vengeance. It's a moral quagmire existent in the Appalachians to this day, according to Offutt.

"It's the code of the hills, and it's still happening," he says. After the murder of Joe's older brother Boyd, Joe discovers exactly what is expected of him. The dilemma that faces Joe, a peaceful man by nature, forms the dramatic structure of the novel. Offutt colors Joe's expected path of action with vibrant depictions of the hill people who live by the harsh law of retribution. Seeking temporary recourse in a dry county, Joe visits a grisled bootlegger frequented by his wilder brother.

"I never told the sheriff nothing," she said. "He came sniffing around after Boyd got killed. Wanted to know if he bought off me, who he came with, and whatnot. I know who killed Boyd, but I never said a word. Ain't aiming to get in your way."

[Joe] turned away, wanting the safety of the woods. "Hey, Little Boyd," the woman called. "You're doing the right thing by laying back. Let that boy think he's safe, then pick your time. I never liked a Rodale, their family tree don't fork."

After a long series of jobs and adventures that took him through most parts of the country (hilariously chronicled in The Same River Twice), Chris met his future wife, Rita, in Boston. They married in New York City, Rita's hometown, and moved back to Kentucky where Offutt began his writing career in earnest.

Offutt's first stories eventually earned him a spot in the University of Iowa's lauded creative writing program. He quickly swapped the hills of Kentucky for the Midwest's rolling plains.

When the time came to begin his first novel, Offutt says he already knew that his main character would be a native Appalachian forced out of the fold. He named him Virgil Caudill, and set out to blaze the path that his protagonist would follow.

Originally that destination was a long ways from Montana. "Kentucky was the frontier of the 1700s, and it has maintained the frontier mentality due to its cultural and geographical isolation," Offutt says.

"What I wanted to do was have Virgil go to the contemporary frontier, which I figured was Alaska. He would flee up there, and I would go to Alaska, because I've always wanted to go there."

But Rita, citing concern for their two young boys, vetoed the move. "So we decided to go to Montana," says Chris. "We'd both been there and liked it, and it also has a strong frontier mentality. And I had met Jim Crumley on a book tour, so we had a contact in Missoula. When we got there, he took us in like kin."

Crumley, in fact, is one of the Missoula personalities who makes a cameo appearance in the new novel. It's a classic Crumley moment, coming on the heels of a drunken, macho display between two patrons of a bar that reads an awful lot like Charlie B's.

Two men squared off by the cigarette machine and backed up like roosters. One shouted "Happy birthday," and they ran toward each other, heads bent low, arms at their sides. Their heads butted and they bounced apart, grinning madly.

A short, broad man carried a tumbler of Scotch with no ice. He was battered as an old ship, still intact and making headway, people trailing behind him as if drawn by his wake. His voice was a rapid growling rasp. "The shit you see when you don't have an automatic weapon."

Once settled, Offutt knew he had made the right choice for Virgil's destination. "The strong sense of personal freedom and re-spect for privacy that Montanans have lent itself perfectly for Vir-gil's need to hide out," he says.

Still, the transition had its difficulties. "I was trying to view the mountains and Montana from the viewpoint of a guy my age who had never been out of the Kentucky hills," Offutt says.

"That was really interesting, to view it as freshly as possible. Also he was a fugitive, so I tried to look at the fragments of society that he would become involved with. This is not a guy who goes down to the bookstore for a latte, you know."

Some of those fragments can be found at the Ox, where I personally observed Offutt's intensive research methods. As far as I could tell, that mostly consisted of playing poker and bullshitting with the other players. "I love the Ox," Chris says. I can hear his grin over the phone.

There is a short chapter in The Good Brother that separates the Kentucky section from the Montana section. It describes Virgil's bleary road journey, and the pronoun for the character becomes the generic "he." By the time "he" wakes up and enters the Wolf, Virgil Caudill has become Joe Tiller, Virgil's pre-arranged fugitive identity.

In keeping with his intent to live as his character would, Offutt also underwent the transformation to Joe Tiller. He acquired a number of ID cards in Joe's name (an international driver's license, an ordained minister's license, three different birth certificates, among others), and Joe's name went on the mailbox of the Offutts' Missoula home. "For a while, he even got more mail than I did," he says.

Offutt also rented a cabin up Rock Creek for the winter; Joe finds lodging at the same place. He bought an old Jeep to knock around in - Joe's chosen transportation. And he grew his hair and beard out, as Joe must to disguise his appearance.

At times, says Offutt, the line between fact and fiction got uncomfortably thin. "I went up Rock Creek three or four times a week to write during the period when Virgil becomes Joe. Rita would say, as I returned, that she didn't know who was coming for dinner - Chris Offutt, Virgil Caudill or Joe Tiller.

"And I didn't know either. I think it was very hard for her, moving somewhere cold, and having her husband turn into somebody else in order to write a novel."

Outside of the author-character relationship, Offutt had another reason for taking the novel personally. Although Joe's journey ended up closely tied to the author's experiences, he says, Virgil and his alias were based on his own true-life brother at the outset.

"In my family, my brother was the good brother. I was always the wild one, like Boyd is in the book," Offutt says. "I got in a lot of trouble as a kid, at home and at school. So Boyd is based on me, except he's dead.

"Then I was able to think about my brother and what it was like for him to grow up in my shadow, and what would happen if I had been murdered and he had been compelled to do something about it.

"In a strange way, then, I was in the position of being able to avenge my own death."

Unfortunately, living as the jobless Tiller also depleted Offutt's savings. When Rita had to sell a sofa for grocery money, the Offutts left Missoula for Iowa and then Albuquerque, N.M., where Chris could teach and continue work on the novel.

Now, two years later, Offutt is poised for a triumphant return to Big Sky country, though he would probably disapprove of the grandiose phrase. "We're really excited to come back to Missoula," he says. Rita intends to become involved with children's theater, and Chris starts a teaching stint at the University of Montana in the fall.

A new book of short stories, chronicling the adventures of a number of Kentuckians unleashed upon the rest of the country, is due out next spring. And the framework for two other Virgil/Joe novels, one predat-ing The Good Brother and the other tracing Joe's return to Kentucky, are already spinning inside Offutt's head.

So Missoula will soon have another acclaimed writer in its midst, and this one won't be hard to find, either. Chances are you'll find Chris Offutt in the back room at the Ox, feeling quite at home. Personally, I look forward to discussing with the author what I believe to be one of the pivotal scenes in his new book.

The dealer wore a multi-colored hat shaped like a bottlecap that looked like it was clamped to his head. A ponytail hung down his back.

The hair is long gone, but I've still got the hat.

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