by Kent Haruf
Small town blues
A review by Ron Charles
The glamour of the National Book Awards ceremony blows away the fusty air of
the book world every November. Big publishers buy up acres of the banquet hall
at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Little houses splurge a year's publicity
budget on the $1,000-a-plate dinner. Even without the medals hanging from their
necks, the nominees would stick out: New authors appear in ill-advised outfits,
like red Nehru jackets or brocade gowns inspired by King Lear, choices probably
pushed on these quiet, pensive writers by family members who insist they live
it up for once. Famous authors in their own tuxedos or black dresses with mile-long
shawls look mildly bored amid a swirl of friends and flacks. Really famous nominees
don't show up, ensuring the most dramatic presence of all.
Kent Haruf couldn't have looked more uncomfortable amid all this glitz in 1999.
A teacher at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he was there because
his third novel, Plainsong,
had been nominated. Amid the New York literati, he had the demeanor of a man
who was skeptical of the hoopla, a little embarrassed by all the attention,
but too humble to do anything but endure until he could get back home.
The author is a good match with his work. Plainsong didn't win that
night (the honor went to Waiting,
by Ha Jin), but it spent months on the bestseller list, gathering fans who responded
to this quiet story about a little town on the High Plains east of Denver.
Now comes a sequel called Eventide with a quarter-million first printing
and a well-timed made-for-TV version of Plainsong broadcast last month
on CBS. Mr. Haruf should prepare to be uncomfortable again: This gathering storm
of publicity is entirely deserved, no matter how incongruous it is with his
stark and simple tale.
Readers of Plainsong will enter Eventide running, but newcomers
needn't worry about picking up here. Once again, the story rotates through the
lives of several families in Holt, Colo., most of whom appeared earlier. At
the center are the McPheron brothers, crusty ranchers trying to keep stiff upper
lips as they help Victoria and her baby pack for college. Two years ago, they
took in Victoria when her mother threw her out for getting pregnant, and though
the four of them made a strange and awkward family, the old men can't imagine
life without her now.
In town, 17 miles away from the McPheron ranch, Luther and Betty Wallace struggle to negotiate the complexities of food stamps and utility bills, child rearing and medical care. The family's precarious equilibrium is easily jostled by trouble at school or a visit from Betty's violent uncle. Their social worker never flags, though she's desperate to numb herself to the trouble in Holt County. She's always ready to serve as their counselor, financier, or chauffeur if it will keep them together, but she can't suspend the sense of doom that hovers over these mentally impaired parents.
In fact, Eventide presents a grim sampling of family life. Eleven-year-old
DJ cares for his infirm grandfather all alone, supervising the old man's monthly
trips to the tavern as best he can. Next door, Mary Wells tries to maintain
a pleasant home for her three little girls, but with no job and no word from
her husband, the economics of survival grind away that hope.
This hardscrabble story kicks up a dust cloud of melancholy that will sting even the most hardened readers' eyes. The fractured families that Haruf portrays particularly the wary children live in a world without any of the financial and social supports familiar to people who can drop $24.95 for a novel. A touch of maudlin pity would have soiled the effect, but Haruf never gives us the easy comfort of feeling superior.
The relentless assaults of illness, meanness, or bad luck blow some of these people into oblivion. Angry cattle can maim, so can drunken uncles. But there are countervailing forces in this sparse Colorado landscape. You can see evidence in the comforting silence of the McPheron brothers' chores, in the extra effort of the Wallaces' social worker, and in neighbors' readiness to step in when routines are shattered. There are currents of affection here more persistent than strong, but ultimately capable of etching even the hard rock of these people's lives.
It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that's strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?
Quotations don't do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf's flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.
This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf
never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning
to write. Not that everyone should sound like him, of course, but his prose
serves as a corrective to the super-hip, self-consciously clever storytelling
that lures too many writers onto the rocks. After all, not everyone can write
Smith. (Even Zadie Smith can't always write like Zadie Smith.)
Eventide never swells with climactic tragedy or heartrending triumph.
Haruf holds the pace of his narrative to the slow passage of winter on the plains,
letting moments of salvation thaw between hard frosts. But when Raymond McPheron
finally finds the comfort he's lived without for so long, it's an affirmation
of his nobility and patience that's utterly believable, quietly reassuring.
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