fulfilling my 2020 goal to read (at least) one book each month that i bought in hardcover and put off reading long enough that it is now in paperback.
this is a gorgeous and streamlined novel featuring one of the most fully-realized yet still somewhat enigmatic characters i have ever read. offutt’s protag/light-antihero tucker left his backwoods-kentucky home to fight in the korean war at the age of seventeen, where, despite his youth, he proved himself in combat, outliving many older, more seasoned soldiers.
As the shortest and youngest member of his platoon, he rarely spoke. His first words were in response to a corporal asking him how he liked his rifle. Tucker had said, “Shoots good,” and a silence fell over the other men as sudden as a net. They looked at one another, then began laughing in an uproarious manner. Four died in combat and would never laugh at him again.
an exceptional marksman, tucker is also methodical, unflappable, and capable, and while other men came home from war ticking time bombs, veterans of Korea and World War II, trained for violence but not in how to control it, tucker is in complete control over his own capacity for violence. on his first day home, he thwarts a rapist, leaving him bleeding but alive, and marries the girl.
it’s pretty much that quick.
in a novel spanning seventeen years in just over 200 pages, everything happens at that pace—tucker starts a family, runs moonshine for a bootlegger, developing a “reputation for toughness and honor,” takes the fall for his boss and does some time, etc, but the events of the novel are almost inconsequential. the real draw is the prose and character-work, which is tremendous.
tucker is a man who survives—through war, prison, the schemes of his criminal associates, and the threats to his family. his survival skills extend to the natural world—observant and deeply attuned to the woods around him, he makes the most of his unforgiving and hardscrabble surroundings; reading nature’s myriad signs and signals, hunting, foraging, able to live off the land if need be.
His supplies had dwindled but he’d be all right. Anybody who couldn’t live in the woods shouldn’t be drawing breath.
although he operates in the world of men—as talented behind the wheel as he is behind a gun, he’s just one more living creature in the ecosystem, bound to the cycle of life and the inevitability of death.
Two red squirrels chased each other around an oak at the edge of the yard, then ran up the tree. At the first fork the small one went east. The other squirrel jumped to the opposite fork and they faced each other on a long horizontal limb. The big one jumped the other, landing easily on the bark, spinning on its rear legs. It climbed on the back of the small one, tucked its forelegs tight, and began hunching its tiny hips. In a few weeks the squirrel would give birth, same as Rhonda. The male might be shot by then, same as him.
that passage says a lot in a sideways manner, which is definitely a recurring thing in this slim novel.
although tucker is fairly unemotional throughout this story, he’s not incapable of emotions; he just doesn’t waste the energy on ’em. similarly, offutt doesn’t waste any words. tucker is a deliberate, decisive character, and the prose mirrors his characteristics.
Tucker blew smoke and squinted as the wind flung it back in his eyes. The cigarette was burning faster on the side facing the window and he dabbed spit on it to even the fire.
it’s that simple—tucker sees sees a problem, he fixes the problem. and when the problems are bigger than cigarette-sized, his solutions are scaled accordingly, but no less dispassionately.
i am so glad i finally read this book. i’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up, but it won’t be long before i track down something else by him.