The short story “Sawdust,” written by “Chris Offut,” gives the reader an insider’s view into the life of a backwoods Appalachian family. Written in the first person, the speaker, Junior, doles out bits and pieces of his early childhood growing up with his brother, Warren, and his mother and father. Authentic hill-speak gives the reader the sense of being there as the adult Junior takes up the quest for a GED.
According to Junior, no one on his hillside has ever finished high school. And in his own words, he, “don’t hunt, fish, or work.” But getting a GED becomes something that nags at him even though it causes strife within his family and generates a considerable amount of gossip among his neighbors. His mother accuses him of getting above his raising while his brother displays some temper at the idea and eventually stops speaking to him for a time. Even his neighbors get into the act and Junior finds himself forced to defend his now deceased father and his own reputation.
Despite his own doubts and the feelings of his family and neighbors, getting his GED becomes Juniors personal Holy Grail. In the end he works up his courage to take the GED test but this generates another problem, how to pay the fifteen dollar fee required by the state. Even that takes a backseat to the choice of returning for the test result versus never knowing. Junior shows the reader than even personal fears can be overcome if one is stubborn enough.
Receiving his GED certificate is Junior’s final personal accomplishment in this story. When the reader leaves him he is searching a creek bank for pop bottles because he still owes the state fifteen dollars.
While I found this story to be quite amusing, it struck a not so pleasant cord within me. As someone born in the hills of Appalachia, I can honestly say that I have never encountered anyone quite like Junior or his kinfolk. Mr. Offut has taken certain characteristics and blown them way out of proportion and perhaps that was his intention, but then again, perhaps not. He commented in an interview with “Ace Weekly” that he wanted to write a book about “us” instead of “them.” I think he failed miserably.
Still, you may find “Kentucky Straight” amusing. I must confess I stopped reading after “Sawdust,” because sometimes having your culture turned into a joke for the amusement of others simply isn’t pleasant. Especially when done by one of your own.