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The Boston Phoenix Plain Livin'

In his latest novel, Kent Haruf gives voice to rough-hewn Westerners

By John Freeman

OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Knopf), 301 pages, $24.

One hundred fifty miles due west of Denver is Holt, Colorado, the small town Kent Haruf has brought to life in his fiction. Its citizens are good, rough-hewn folks who make their livings farming cattle, managing the grain elevator, or clerking at the Gas and Go. On Saturday night, most people head to the Chute Bar and Grill to drink and smoke and dance to country music. Many go to church the next morning. Afterward, they share town gossip over pepper steaks and black coffee at the Holt Café. In a town this small, news travels fast. And when things go awry, as they do for the cast of Haruf's latest novel, Plainsong, everyone in Holt knows about it.

In Plainsong, Haruf has given Holt a tale that will travel beyond its café's Formica tabletops. Recounting events that take place over the course of a year, Haruf elegantly evokes the interior lives of eight central characters as they attempt to live simply and respectably in the face of cruel realities. There's Tom Guthrie, a flinty schoolteacher whose refusal to pass a student based on his basketball abilities raises serious trouble for him and his two sons, 11-year-old Ike and nine-year-old Bobby. The boys are dutiful kids. They deliver papers and help out the aging McPheron brothers on their cattle ranch 17 miles outside of Holt. They've been brought up well, but they're beginning to observe the darker intricacies of adulthood. They see two high-school kids put a girl and a mattress to use in the abandoned house next door. And then their mother, Ella, who has been staying in bed into the afternoon and crying quietly, finally gets out of bed to leave their father. With Guthrie salving his wounds at the bar (or in the high-school secretary's bed), the boys wind up taking care of themselves.

Another casualty of growing up fast is Victoria Roubideaux, a wispy teenager who's kicked out of her mother's house when she gets pregnant with an older boy's child. The baby's father leaves town, and, like Bobby and Ike, Victoria is suddenly left to fend for herself. Maggie Jones, a big-hearted teacher who has an eye for Guthrie, eventually takes Victoria in. When this arrangement stops working out, Jones coaxes the McPheron brothers into putting Victoria up for a bit. These two aging, rugged lifelong bachelors don't know much about talking to "womenfolk," but after several humorous attempts to interest Victoria in grain prices and cattle breeding, they begin to realize they must step outside their world to care for her.

Haruf's previous two novels were narrated by a central character in a twangy vernacular notable for its occasional, often wrong-headed attempts at lyricism. In Plainsong, Haruf narrates omnisciently, skipping from one character to the next, deftly playing their stories off each other. Haruf's own voice, previously hidden beneath those of his narrators, emerges in this book as a stripped-down, prairie-set derivative of Cormac McCarthy's. In the early pages of Plainsong, the likeness between the two authors (who share an editor at Knopf) is so overwhelming that it becomes a distraction. Here is a passage from Plainsong compared with one from McCarthy's latest novel, Cities of the Plain.

From Plainsong:

He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.

From Cities of the Plain:

Billy washed his face at the sink and Socorro handed him the towel and he dried his face and laid the towel on the counter and came to the table and stepped over the back of the empty chair and sat and reached for the eggs.

In addition to adopting the strings of "and"s, the oft-punctuated masculine tasks of doing (hitching, shaving, and smoking), and the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, Haruf has studded his story with violent, McCarthyesque livestock encounters that drive home the ruggedness of life on the plains. These set pieces do showcase some good writing, but they are not what make this story a profound one.

Haruf's characters, so generously drawn that they seem to operate of their own free will, are what eventually pull this novel free of McCarthy's clutches. Will Victoria run off when her child's father returns to town? Will Guthrie make another attempt at romance? Will Ike and Bobby give in to the negative influences surrounding them? When Haruf pays attention to these hard-edged, soft-centered people and the painful decisions they face, Plainsong lives up to its title, which means a "simple and unadorned melody of air."


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