Chris Offutt’s “The Good Brother”


Everyone in Rocksalt, Kentucky knows that Billy Rodale killed Boyd Caudill. Everyone expects Virgil Caudill to avenge his older brother’s death, including his mother. Even the sheriff has said, in as many words, that he wouldn’t investigate if Rodale came to an untimely end. The only problem is that Virgil doesn’t want to do it; he realizes that not only would it NOT fix the real problem–Boyd’s death–but would leave him looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, watching for Rodale’s kin to come for him.

In a moral tale, Virgil would stand up to society and refuse, in order to break the cycle of revenge and retaliation. This isn’t a moral tale. He does. Before killing Rodale, however, he creates a new identity, drivers license, Social Security card and all, purchases another car under the new name and leaves his old truck at the Cincinnati airport. In the new car, he flees west, ending up in Missoula, Montana. He comes under the scrutiny of a libertarian survivalist group, who are simultaneously suspicious and admiring of his complete recreation of a new persona. As with all good tragedies, however, this ends as it must: one of Rodale’s kin does, in fact, come out to Missoula to work on the firefighting crews the next summer.

In many ways, The Good Brother is a polar opposite to Gloria; only the setting is similar and that only because they’re both set in Southern states. It’s a short book, and the writing is much simpler and more straightforward; we have to read between the lines to realize what Virgil’s thinking and feeling while in Gloria’s case, we get every last minuscule detail, down to deciding which slip to wear with which dress. Characters in The Good Brother are redneck good ole’ boys, whether in Kentucky or in Montana, and not given to introspection. The titular character in Gloria never stops thinking and analyzing her situation. At one point, Offutt describes one of the Kentucky characters as having “recieved a bit of sophistication in Ohio, and every surface [of the furniture] was made of chipboard covered by woodgrain vinyl that glowed with a perpetual shine.” while Gloria hesitates to buy the dress which ultimately helps her win the title of May Queen at college…because it’s polyester and her sort never wears artificial fibers.

This book I picked, at random, from a readers advisory book held by the library where I worked at the time, describing landmark novels of the 1990s, on the thought that I really ought to read more modern mainstream fiction in order to better help the patrons. As with Gloria, and unlike most other modern mainstream fiction, this one I loved enough to need a backup hardcover copy…which fortunately, in this case, I found.

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