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The Way Titles Work: Titles in Chris Offutt’s Kentucky Straight

by D.P. Clark

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A title can be an extremely useful way to get a reader engaged in your text.  Titles are first impressions, they are suggestive, they are hints or mysteries, they can denote setting and place, or evoke emotion.  Titles can immediately spark interest or they can turn a reader away.  In terms of picking an effective title, you need to consider how it extends your work, how it enhances elements or theme or imagery, and how it plays to the tone and mode of your work.  Also, the kind of work presented raises an equal concern—a novel’s title may not be as crucial as a short story’s title (though not to suggest that a novel’s title is inconsequential).  Likewise, a title for a book of short stories has a different set of concerns than, say, a title for a story within that book.  A title of a single story needs to, in some way, pick a moment or image that has been purposefully setup (or specifically avoided) within the text to make a statement about the story itself.  For a book of stories, the title needs to be a kind of distilled essence of all of the stories (though surely many great books of stories have simply been titled after the most striking of the lot).  Offutt’s collection Kentucky Straight employs its own title as both a literal and suggestive way of thinking about the connections within his stories.  The term Kentucky Straight is literally a bourbon with no mixer—which immediately elicits the destructive symptoms of alcoholism (i.e. who else would be drinking bourbon straight besides an alcoholic?).  Since bourbon is from Kentucky (and since the name appears in the title), it also establishes place.  So now these ideas of place and alcoholism begin to mash-up with Appalachian stereotypical images of poor, white, hillbilly, etc.  It can also be read as giving Kentucky straight to the reader, as an honest and pure description of a culture.  What it suggests, then, about the entire collection is that these stories, in one way or another, address these notions of place…and it does it in just two words.

The titles of the individual stories work to a different end.

In “Horseweed,” William is working any job he can find in town to save up enough money for the fixtures to build a bathroom for his wife and two daughters.  There is very much a sense of conflict between things town and country and between things coal (or company man) and man of the land.  Times continue to get tougher, so in order to get out of his rut in life, William finds some natural-growing marijuana and transplants it to a near-by ridge.  He plans to sell this to some people from town.  Horseweed comes into play when William hears a noise while checking on the plants and finds a coal company man wandering around who has been bitten by a poisonous snake.  William is faced with killing the man, sure that no one would find him, or letting his conscious get the best of him.

‘What’d they send you for?’ William said.  “They done mined this land out.’
‘Just running tests.’
‘Up here?’
‘No.  When the snake hit me, I came this way.  Figured I’d build a fire and somebody’d see it.’
‘You’d do that, wouldn’t you.  You’d burn the woods down.’
‘Nothing here but some kind of horseweed.’
The moon rose above the hemp as if towed by the setting sun.  The man’s clothes were ripped from briars.  A gold band glinted on his left hand, and William wondered if he had kids.
‘Live in town?’ William said.
‘All my life,’ the man said.  ‘We’d like to move out, but I don’t know.’
‘It ain’t easy around here.’ (66)

In this case, the significance of horsewood isn’t apparent until after getting into the story.  Horseweed itself connotes a kind of plant, or natural growing nuisance, but doesn’t have a sense of specific meaning for many readers.  And it certainly isn’t flashy or exciting.  But what it does do is play on the word ‘weed’ (the slang term for marijuana) and also position the marijuana as a somewhat unwanted but necessary risk within the story.

The second instance:

‘Only reason I took the damn job,’ the man said.  ‘Free gas and a company truck.  It runs better than I do.’  He patted the hood.  ‘What do I owe you?’
William shook his head and looked away.  He checked the rifle scope and wiped moisture from the barrel.  The man climbed into the cab.
‘That wasn’t horseweed up there, was it?’ the man said.
‘I don’t know,’ William said.  ‘I don’t raise horses.’
‘Far as I know,’ the man said, ‘you don’t raise a thing.’ (69)

What’s interesting here is that even though the story is about a marijuana farmer, Offutt chooses to title his story after the misnaming of the marijuana.  It also plays on the value of marijuana as a commodity (which is Kentucky’s number one cash crop seconded only by tobacco) by calling it by the name of a weed that is completely worthless.  In the story, William even makes reference to the declining value of the tobacco leaf.  Raising tobacco is associated with honest hard work, and Offutt is placing it next a plant that is raised by risk instead.  Keep in mind that within this story, the marijuana is mentioned very few times.   By avoiding that specifically, and by titling the story after something it is not, the title is doing much more work than it would have than just being called “The Marijuana Farmer.”

In “The Leaving One,” Vaughn is alone out in the woods when a man approaches him and tells him he’s his grandfather Lije.  Vaughn keeps this a secret from his mother, but starts spending time learning about the wilderness from him.  The knowledge Lije passes down seems to contradict facts that Vaughn has learned in school, but in some way, also seems to make plenty of sense.  The title comes into play when Lije is teaching Vaughn how to knock the fresh walnuts from a tree by using another walnut instead of a rock.

He stepped into the late afternoon sunlight cutting over the western ridge.  Vaughn followed until the man suddenly turned to face him, holding a walnut.  He closed his eyes and cocked an arm, fringe drifting like a wing.  He threw the walnut over his shoulder.  It arched high, dropping through the boughs of yellow leaves.  Several walnuts fell to earth.
The old man opened his eyes.  ‘Leave one,’ he said.
The nuts lay beneath the tree in a diamond shape with a large walnut in the center.  Vaughn gathered them quickly, winding them into the bottom of his shirt when his pockets became too tight.  He left the biggest and hurried to the man, who leaned on a maple by the game path.  Vaughnn was aware of the wind’s sliding chill and the old man’s withered body in his deer-hide shirt.  He seemed weaker now.
‘Where was it?” Lije said.  ‘The leaving one.’
‘In the middle.’  (38)

The first appearance of the phrase The Leaving One establishes the connection between man and nature and lets the reader know that this scene is of particular importance.  When Lije tells Vaughn to leave one of the walnut behinds, it signifies a kind of knowledge about the land and also a respect for something larger than oneself.

The second instance:

‘Sing you the be I song,’ Lije said.  “Sing you what land made me.  The oak shadow is be I.  Dream tinker is my drum.  The eyes in the woods you feel alone.  Windbreath from a cave.  Deerprint, birdcall, bobcat keen.  The leaf I be.  The leaf I be.  The leaf I be.’
Acorns rained to the ground while screeching squirrels raced from limb to limb.  Lije’s face was paling fast.  A yellow butterfly circled a blur around his head.  He slowly tilted backwards into swirling leaves and settled to the earth, pulling Vaughn with him, onto his body.  They held the stone together, pressed tight between their palms.
‘Leave me lay here after,’ Lije said.  ‘You be the Boatman now.’ (51)

And again:

Vaughn strung the oval stone over his neck.  He took the feathers and stepped from the cold alley between the oaks.  An owl called and another answered until the sound filled the woods.  Vaughn chose the biggest feather and shaped its tines, drawing them tight to the tip, and stretched his arm between the oaks.  The leaving feather settled to the buckskin husk of Lije.  Vaughn began walking toward the red glow of sun behind the western hill. (53)

In these last two sections, it becomes clear that Vaughn’s grandfather Lije is the one that is left behind.  But it’s the success of the title that ties Life’s death back to nature, re-birth, and the continuation of seed.  The title extends that idea of leaving something behind to the older ways of life that Lije had possessed and were left for Vaughn to continue on (though that idea is complicated with Vaughn’s struggles with what he learned and school and what grandfather taught him).

In “Old of the Moon,” Cody is a hell-raising man until one day he finds God.  He becomes the town preacher.  While he’s setting up for a revival, he decides to go see Tar Cutler in hopes of securing he and his relatives for the show.  Instead, he finds Tar’s dead body in the bedroom and a tape recorder next to the bed.  It is Tar’s voice telling a chilling story of an old story elder who had lost a baby by way of a black bear and had gone to hunt it down.  The tale juxtaposes religion next to a folklore mythology next to guns and whiskey (as rural signifiers for survival).

Jim swung at the dog, and sank the ax in the ground to the handle.  The dog squalled across the clay dirt yard, spraying blood.  Its yellow tail lay beside the buried ax head.  Jim went in the house for his flintlock rifle and Wayne squatted beside the dog tail.
‘Never did see on off a dog,’ he said.
‘Get your eyes full,’ Clabe said.
‘Might mean something.’
‘By God, you’re getting bad off as an old cure-witch, trying to read a dog’s hind-end.’
‘Ought not to make fun,’ Wayne said.  ‘Might come back on you.’
Wayne spat between his legs, took off his belt, and ran it through the loops the opposite way.  Clabe watched and didn’t laugh.  Used to, everybody went by sign and peculiar weather.  I’ve carpentered that way myself.  Freshcut green wood’ll bow, cup, or warp all depending on where the moon’s at.  You take and build by the moon and your rafters will bend with the earth.  I got that off my grandpaw and a keener man never hammered lumber. (79)

Here, a sense of folklore has already been established with the Old of the Moon—superstitious notions of when you can and cannot plant certain crops.  The repetition of moon in this scene links the importance such superstitious actions as re-looping a belt or building by the moon.  So the title is guiding or framing how the reader should think about the actions of the characters.

And again:

‘Dog me blind,’ Jim said. ‘Panthers.’
Those boys were in a fix and the panther screams rang like a dinner bell.  Evening star hung bright as metal.  It was the old of the moon and there wasn’t much light to see by.  Good time to plant crop, but not walk panther cliffs at night.  In an hour it’d be full dark.  Jim loaded his flintlock.  He had enough powder for one long shot or a couple of short ones.  Clabe breathed hard, wrapped I bear hide.  His muzzle-loader lay beside him. (84)

When the title appears in the story at this point, it signals the weight of the scene.  The phrase ‘the old of the moon’ has plenty of charm and mystery to it, but it isn’t until this moment that the reader starts to absorb the significance of the moon as a cyclic entity, as present now as it was to these men’s elders.  The old could also signify the differences present in this story between the old ways of living and the new (as this piece is framed around a longer flashback).  Regardless of that certainty, the title is operating with larger themes on many levels, really poking at religious salvation and how it plays against superstition in the hard ways of life for this culture.

Some of the other titles in Kentucky Straight were not so successful.  “Aunt Granny Lith,” for example.  Or “Nine-ball.”  One about a strangely ‘witch-like’ woman and one about characters in a pool hall.  These two titles work, but there is definitely danger in a title that is purely “functional.”  That isn’t to say that functional titles are never appropriate.  But something to consider is exactly how much work you need your title to do for you and how you want to capture the spirit of your piece.  Take the title seriously.  It’s every bit as important as your first line.

Works Cited

Offutt, Chris. Kentucky Straight. NY: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

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