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December1999
The Same River Twice
by Chris Offutt

Bill:
Hi everybody, and welcome to the bookclub@ket. Our December selection is Chris Offutt's The Same River Twice, and here to help me talk about that book with you is Cait ...

Caitl:
Hi, Bill.

Bill:
... and Tona ...

Tona:
Hi.

Bill:
Welcome. Jonathan ...

Jonathan:
Hi, Bill.

Bill:
... and Dava.

Dava:
Hello.

Bill:
The book jacket really gives us a good description and a way to begin to talk about this.The publishers write at the age of 19 Chris Offutt had already been rejected by the Army, the Peace Corps, the Park Rangers and the police so he left his home in the Kentucky Appalachians and thumbed his way north into a series of odd jobs and strange encounters with some odd people. I think I threw in the the odd people. We will talk about that today. He ends up in Iowa beside the Iowa River with a pregnant wife and looking forward to fatherhood but in between a lot goes on. It is sort of written in a couple of different ways Jonathan it's a new way we haven't read anything this year that sort of describes a road story as well as what is actually happening in his life when he puts together this memoir. What about that?

Jonathan:
Yeah, it is in fact a book that seems to be composed of two parts and it almost judging by the way it is written the style and the subject it seems to me that it almost has been written in two different ways and two different times of his life perhaps. One story is really as you said he drops out of high school, he starts traveling, he goes to New York, Minnesota, Boston, Florida, he gets odd jobs. He has a lot of parties, he makes friends with people and so on and that is kind of a memory of his bachelor days and then the second part is I think much more interesting and insightful and thoughtful -- the part where he is thinking about his life with his wife and he is thinking about what it will like to be a father. I wonder whether he has done it or his editor has told him to do it. They sort of interweave the two together so that you get one chapter from his bachelor days and then one chapter from his married days and so alternates throughout the book, and I think that was probably a good idea.

Bill:
It's a different way. I don't think as I said we haven't read anything this year. I don't know if if anybody else remembers reading a memoir that sort of puts one chapter on the road and one chapter sort of truisms and talking about nature and and looking forward to those things. Dava, how did you like that. Did you like that technique?

Dava:
I really did because I thought it was most interesting in that was one chapter would describe his days as a rogue or whatever whatever you want to call it. And then another chapter the very next one would talk about his anticipation of being a father. One would look at that and think there is such a contrast. But I really thought that his same state of mind was reflected in both both sets of stories. I just think it's fascinating to watch how he evolved into this person who is yet to be a father but he still had so many of the same fears he had while on the road. And I thought that was what was interesting about it.

Bill:
So there was some growing up.

Dava:
It was just a carry over.

Bill:
Some maturity along the way from each story. What do you think Tona?

Tona:
Oh I really enjoyed it. I thought that for one thing if he had kept on with all these travels and these stories there are so almost fantastical.

Bill:
Hmm

Tona:
You know it's hard to believe that he met all these as you said odd and interesting people. But this sort of grounded it I thought more in in ordinary life and then I found it very interesting -- all his talk about his fears about being a father and all of his imaginings about that.

Bill:
Which stories did you like the best. Did you like the road stories, the journeys, or did you like when he was back beside the river and Rita and Chris were looking forward to the birth of their first child. I mean I think those are really different although Dava you said that that thread sort of ties the two together.

Dava:
What I noticed was while he was hitchhiking across America, he would say every time he got a job promotion he would have to leave because that would be some kind of formality, some sort of grounding, or anytime a woman seemed to get too close he would want to leave and then he even talks about the beginning of this book when he and Rita were considering having a child that Rita wanted a child but he didn't. He thought about leaving her so she could have enough time to find another man and have a child. He has the same fears that he was finally getting over them I think with his son coming.

Caitl:
I guess I just couldn't decide whether it was trying to be a memoir or a more anecdotal kind of on the road types.

Bill:
Uh .

Caitl:
Narrative. Or whether it was really just a tribute to his wife. Which I did think he was really strongly.

Bill:
h .

Caitl:
Paying tribute to her and to the birth of their child.

Bill:
What do we know as the reader about Rita? His wife.

Caitl:
Well, you don't know a lot about her. The word I think comes to mind is pillar I think. (laughs) Because she seems so stable and a contrast to his to his wildness. And and I guess toward the end of it I started to wonder exactly what it was that brought him down finally. But you know because she was so strong and determined and seemed to have such a clear idea of what she wanted to do.

Tona:
You almost wonder because he reveals so much about his mother and father -- particularly his father.

Caitl:
Oh really I don't think he did.

Tona:
Well, I think it's almost an indictment of his father.

Caitl:
h .

Tona:
And you just wonder if maybe Rita said I don't want to be revealed and so she was this person who played a role but you really don''t get much.

Bill:
A real true picture of her.

Caitl:
Well I guess.

Tona:
I don't think so.

Bill:
Sort of background.

Caitl:
You know you are sort of drawn into this voyeuristic mode. ust by the nature of the book, but and but I didn't think that he really provided much insight into his own his background. His own family life really.

Jonathan:
The one thing he did say was that his parents didn't want to have any connection with their relatives.

Caitl:
h .

Jonathan:
So they withdrew into the woods of Eastern Kentucky and tried to break off contact with the rest of the family.

Dava:
Oh really.

Jonathan:
And he said more or less successfully, so we didn't really know our relatives very much. And one thing I feel about the book is he really doesn't describe anybody very well except himself.

Caitl:
Right.

Jonathan:
You can say his father or his mother his wife these are important people to him but you don't really get a very good picture of them.

Caitl:
I wanted to know more.

Jonathan:
His wife he says she has big eyes. And there is very little else I know about her. The mother and father, you don't know much about them at all.

Caitl:
I like that he doesn't romanticize their relationship though. I mean I thought that was a good element to it. He describe them as a pair of mammals trying to I have forgotten the line.

Bill:
But if we don't know much about her or the parents maybe we do know more about the people that he met on the road. Don't you think that you got to know some of the characters some of the oddballs if you will, some of the strange people better than you really knew his parents. Of course, he didn't write a lot about his time when they went back to Eastern Kentucky and I think they only did that one time.

Bill:
Can somebody recall if you have a favorite vagabond that he met along the way.

Dava:
Well my favorites are when he worked in the Everglades. He was a naturalist.

Bill:
With no credentials.

Dava:
Right. And he just got the job over the phone and said he was a naturalist and came down on the bus and it was the pathetic little tourist attraction.It was awful and the people there -- a lot of them are escapees from the law and just colorful people. You can't get to describe all of them because it doesn't really do justice to them.

Caitl:
That was his low point I think.

Dava:
Yeah.

Tona:
But you know it seemed to me he was a rootless person and the way he related to his family in Eastern Kentucky was it was not rooted in the sense that I feel about that. And so that he just traveled vaguely across America.

Tona:
That's just one of his sentences and I think how you know you feel like he's a person that just sort of stayed on the surface and never wanted to attach himself or have any kind of long term relationship with anybody.

Dava:
h .

Tona:
Including his family.

Jonathan:
Well do you think then the people that he met on the road although some of them are vividly described some of them are rather colorful characters they are not very profound characterizations because he didn't get to know them very well then.

Tona:
Well, it I it seems to me like that he's a very unusual odd person. And he kind of was attracted to other people like that. They were not exactly like him but equally odd.

Dava:
Sort of misfits.

Bill:
So there is much more than just saying that this is written about coming of age. That he started when he dropped out of school and started at what 18 or 19 he made these travels, he settled down, there is so much more in that it's not just a simple tale of a road story that maybe you were thinking of and and talking about a few minutes ago. There's a lot more. Let me just ask you this and we'll leave this. but the vehicle of using these two sort of separate threads that are interwoven, did that work? I think Dava that you said it did.

Dava:
Yeah.

Bill:
On the road in one chapter and then back by the river what about you Cait is that something that helped you along, were you ready for him to stop one cataclysmic sort of problem that he ran into? Of course, he was always out of money and looking for a place toto live in. It just seems like it was one catastrophe after another.

Caitl:
I don't know if it worked for me particularly well. Well for one thing, I guess at the end I was just puzzled (laughs) by the whole outcome of it and how it all was tied together so neatly -- so no. (laughs)

Bill:
Yeah, you are saying no that's right. You know there was a certain sort of raw edge to it all -- a roughness in some of the dialog and some of the characters. Did you feel at all any tenseness or any of that raw edge as you were reading it Dava?

Dava:
I thought that was what was so exciting.

Bill:
h .

Dava:
These are people I'm never going to meet. I mean.

Bill:
Well.

Dava:
Well not in such not as as in every single day. I mean every place he went he sought the lowest, lowest level.

Bill:
h .

Dava:
And he loved it and I loved hearing about it. That's what made it interesting to me because you know he was a person that didn't want the strings attached to living a dream and I noticed his dreams just shifted with every wind. He was going to be a poet, well he was going to be an artist paint things, he couldn't stand the confinement of working toward one single goal.

Caitl:
I didn't get the sense that he loved it. I got the sense that he just didn't know anything else to do. That it was out of necessity rather than.

Jonathan:
Well, I feel about the travel sections that really they weren't as well written as the other sections.

Caitl:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And I think that, therefore, I didn't enjoy them as much as I might have if he had taken more time to think more carefully about what he wanted to say in them and he could have even described the characters I think more interestingly. Personally, it seemed to me that he does refer a couple of times to using a diary. He said sometimes in fact he was so hungry for experience which he could then put into his diary that he would go out and like take a bicycle out in the snow or something so he could write about it in his diary. And it seemed to me that a lot of the book seemed to be just taken from a diary and rather hastily transformed into memoir.

Bill:
h .

Jonathan:
I mean and so for that reason that's why I think that the later portion where he is thinking about himself with his wife and the baby I think it is more thoughtful, I think he is actually more thoughtful about what he is doing and what he has been doing. And he is able to digest the experience better and write about it better I think.

Caitl:
I agree.

Jonathan:
I mean you know the other part is entertaining, but I think it could have been more entertaining if he'd and I do think if it hadn't been interweaved. I was finding the first part kind of boring.

Caitl:
I didn't find that the characters entirely original. I think I felt like I had.

Bill:
Predictable?

Caitl:
No, but just not necessarily characters that I had never seen before. And the one I did enjoy very much was the circus scene. The circus scene I thought that passage about the parrot woman with the tattoos.

Bill:
h .

Caitl:
In the side show was really that was well written I thought. But

Bill:
Did you think most of those stories are supposed to be true?

Caitl:
Well.

Bill:
Are they.

Caitl:
I

Bill:
I mean would he have.

Caitl:
Well see it's hard to say because he really takes himself very seriously I think in this book and so to assume that he was exaggerating for comic effect doesn't seem to be possible.

Bill:
What about this whole notion of it being a memoir, which in some definitions is an accounting of something truthful and but I I don't know if in literature. Jonathan if this supposed to be something that has to be accounted for along the way. I guess maybe I'm thinking that the scenes by the river for this conversation we will call those the nature scenes maybe are more believable and are sort of from the heart rather than on the road stories. You know he had a hard time finding time or the inclination to write anything down in his journal so he really had to go back and sort of recall all of those.

Jonathan:
Memory, well an autobiography is traditionally to be taken with a pinch of salt. I mean you can believe what people say in their memoirs, but it is not surely without some fictional elements. People can be as truthful as they want to be but it can be hard to reconstruct exactly what happened and you may reconstruct in such a way as throws yourself in a good light. So to that extent I think that if some of it seems far fetched I mean it may be and maybe not who knows? But it certainly makes for an entertaining read. He does try to be very honest with himself, does he not. When he is facing eminent fatherhood he really faces up to the really nasty and anti-social emotions that he sometimes feels and he is honest about that.

Caitl:
I think I agree. I think that was the most successful is when he is describing his fears. That's when I felt he is being the most honest.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Caitl:
And even the scenes in the woods. I just thought that I have no doubt that he has a wide range of knowledge about nature and but it seemed.

Bill:
Forced.

Caitl:
Yeah.

Bill:
What about his writing style.

Jonathan:
Well, I would like to come back to what you said -- the idea of it being forced because I think that when he describes tracking animals I think that seemed interesting, and I believed him that he knew all about that.

Caitl:
h

Jonathan:
Because he wrote with a kind of unpretentious directness about animal tracks in a way that I I thought I could believe. But when he starts thinking about dinosaurs and the various gynecological facts about his wife and so on that you know it can be very bookish and seems like he has swallowed an encyclopedia.

Caitl:
I think that.

Jonathan:
Sometimes. (Everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
And he gets that in and it sometimes seems rather radical rather starch shift. I think he is at his best when he's just plainly describing events or emotions.

Caitl:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
I think he's at his worst when he strives for a fact as for instance in this case when he says, "they got some America on fold in every direction as I traveled the interstate bloodstream dodging the white corpuscles of perverts, cops, and outlaws." And where as I see he is trying to make make a metaphor where America is a body and therefore, policemen are white corpuscles and it seemed a bit strained.

Caitl:
h .

Jonathan:
And I think sometimes when he tries for metaphoric effects it seems a bit strained. .

Caitl:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Other times he's fine and I think sometimes he just strives for effect too much.

Bill:
What about the imagery, "cardinals sliced the air like drops of blood."

Jonathan:
Forced.

Bill:
You think so.

Jonathan:
Yeah because I don't see drops of blood when I see cardinals.

Bill:
Tona, you are not getting in there .

Tona:
Well you know I am thinking all the time is that I see him throughout this thing as a person who's struggling to find himself and a very troubled person.

Bill:
h .

Tona:
Really, and I see him struggling to be a writer too. And I think that he has a great deal of promise but he's a person who started out you know in not the best family circumstances and and that he's different from me.

Bill:
Although.

Tona:
And I think that's one thing that's interesting 'like you were saying I'll never do these things; I'll never meet these people not the way he has and so I sort of even though yeah I think there are a lot of places where I feel like his writing gives you pause. (laughs) and you're kind of oh come on you know, get it together ...

Bill:
Well, of course, the

Tona:
but

Bill:
The best way for someone to determine that is to is to read this book and make up their minds for themselves and before our time gets away being our our final book of the year I want to quickly ask you what your favorite book for the bookclub @ KET our first year on the air and we're coming back next year but Dava not your very favorite but some of the selections that you enjoyed out of the twelve that we read this year.

Dava:
Um I don't want to use the word favorite.

Bill:
Question

Dava:
But

Bill:
Well

Dava:
I really really really enjoyed Come and Go Molly Snow by Mary Ann Taylor Hall. That book really haunted me. I could see images of Molly walking through the forest like she would have visioned her walking through the forest and with her hair blond and her dress on. I could still see that even months later and I could see her playing her fiddle still in the deserted cabin.

Bill:
h .

Dava:
But, as far as a book that is just for grins I really liked the Natural Man. I mean that is just funny stuff.

Caitl:
Yeah. (everyone laughs)

Bill:
Wonder what book you enjoyed or how many times have you read it.

Caitl:
Oh gosh. Countless.

Bill:
If if Natural.

Caitl:
It's a great book.

Bill:
Of course it is and and that's why it's on our list. (everyone laughs)

Bill:
But if that was number one and again I don't want to do two threes and that sort of thing but what else did you enjoy reading.

Caitl:
Wow. We read well Memory of Old Jack is one of my all time favorites. I just love that book but all new books that I have never read before. The Healing and Secrets of a Fire King both were just great.

Bill:
h .

Caitl:
Great books.

Bill:
h .

Caitl:
Loved The Healing.

Bill:
Jonathan?

Jonathan:
Well I don't want to seem that I didn't enjoy Natural Man because I did. (everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
Great comic novel. But I think also The Healing. I go for that as one of the high points. I think it's just a marvelous command of voice, marvelous dialog and as a first person narrator it's superb; but the other one I liked very much was Bobbie Ann Mason's book of stories which I thought the characterization was very good and very understated. She just does a great job with just a few brush strokes you know.

Bill:
And Tona you really liked Chris Offut's book?

Tona:
Yes I did. But another one I really enjoyed was Storming Heaven. Because I had sort of a different idea of what that book was going to be like and it was much different and I just felt like I learned a lot about the the mining struggles the union struggles and all that.

Bill:
Well, we want to remind everybody that we will be back next year. We have our book marks printed and our books chosen and they're all going to be on our web site so we want to tell everybody to go to the bookclub@ket website and as somebody also mentioned to me these would make wonderful Christmas presents wouldn't they -- at least a couple of the first ones. Our January selection is The Last Day by Glenn Kleier who is from down in Louisville so we look forward to being back next year and having a lot of conversation about some great books. As we conclude with The Same River Twice the question might be Chris Offutt still a fairly young man at 43 or 4 right now I think something like that having written some other short stories and some other works where do you think he is going to fit in the writing of Kentucky in 10 or 15 or 20 years. We've mentioned Ed McClanahan who has his place and Wendell Berry who certainly is one of the most heralded writers in Kentucky history I think is fair to say, plus we could name many many more. Where do you think he is going to end up Tona or where is he right now.

Tona:
Well I think it kind of depends on where he goes from here. This is the only work of his I have read.

Bill:
h .

Tona:
But .

Bill:
This was an early work. He has done two or three maybe a couple of things since then.

Tona:
yeah.

Dava:
I will be interested to see because I really did like his first book of short stories Kentucky Straight but it will be interesting to see if he moves away from the eastern Kentucky thing.

Bill:
I think he is in Iowa now. He left Morehead he was here last year and now he's back in Iowa at the university.

Jonathan:
When you said eastern Kentucky.

Dava:
See where he goes.

Jonathan:
Eastern Kentucky thing as you said I think that one of the themes of the book is what it is to be from eastern Kentucky and it's a self-portrait of a Kentuckian I think, and he is very good at exploring his emotions that when he goes to new places like New York and Minnesota and meets people who have stereotypical ideas of what Kentucky is.

Caitl:
h .

Jonathan:
I think he is very good at describing how he thinks and feels about that and describing it is to come from eastern Kentucky and that's one of his strengths I think. You continue to draw from that.

Caitl:
h .

Tona:
You know what it made me think of? The Dollmaker is on the list next year and that starts out with the woman's attachment to the land, but it is so different and then she goes to the city and I think comparing this is really.

Bill:
Not that we all don't have that eastern Kentucky baggage if you will. Sort of being withdrawn a bit until he gets to know some people not being quite as worldly as some of the other people that he meets and that sort of thing and maybe he sort of holds back in a way.

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