An Army Officer Navigates Treachery in Kentucky’s ‘Killing Hills’

Of course, it isn’t likely that nobody else will get killed in a novel titled “The Killing Hills,” by a writer known for hard-edge portrayals of men for whom revenge against those who have insulted them isn’t optional. But Offutt’s deeper concern would seem to be for the region itself, a “hillbilly elegy” distinctly his own for the paradoxical mixture of geographical beauty and economic distress that has characterized portrayals of Appalachia for decades, where “deaths of despair” have become commonplace. The velocity of “The Killing Hills” doesn’t allow for much exposition or nuance, but this theme is struck emphatically:

“Everywhere else, folks live a little bit longer every year. Our lives are getting shorter on average. Ain’t nowhere else in the country that’s happening. Twenty years ago the life span here was longer.”

“The hills are killing us.”

Though Hardin provides the principal perspective in the book, and its moral compass, another, self-conscious voice frequently intervenes with the knowing air of an anthropologist: “Mick had known the Haneys all his life. … Each generation looked the same: stout through the torso with a set of shoulders like a fireplace mantel, powerful arms and sturdy legs. Their heads were more rounded than elongated. All had ruddy expressions and the same thatch of unruly hair that started out red, faded early to gray and finally white.”

Hardin takes care to introduce himself as “Jimmy Hardin’s boy, Mick,” to dispel suspicion among those who brandish guns at outsiders. The farther away from the small town of Rocksalt (pop. 7,500), the more feared the hill people:

“Most of the Mullinses he knew lived deep in the hills on high ridges. Such a location typically meant a strong desire to be away from town. Then again, they might be Melungeon people descended from the earliest inhabitants who already lived in the hills when Daniel Boone arrived. Nobody called them Melungeons anymore, not even themselves, but the families were considered disreputable.”

Characters in “The Killing Hills” tend to be comically named: Face Fatkin, Shifty Littleton, Cricket, Junebug, Sheetrock, Doodle, Rickets. Marquis Sledge is a funeral director; Murvil Knox is a “big coal operator … slippery as chopped watermelon.” One sequence involves a living mule that has been fastened by eyebolts to replace a porch post holding up the roof of a hill dweller’s house: “A chain latched to the bridle kept the mule’s head immobile. On its back was a wooden chair held in an upright position by a flank cinch. The chair’s top rail supported the end of the porch.” Is this comedy? Caricature? Reportage? It’s difficult to write about marginalized regions of America without sounding inadvertently condescending, or, worse, contemptuous; Offutt, who has identified himself as “a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America,” navigates this sensitive terrain with skill and a measure of respect for his subject.

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