Monday, December 9, 2013

Plainsong

By, Kent Haruf

I love literature, good literature.  A classic story well told. But I am an engineer with no training for picking good books. I always had an American Studies major friend in college to steer me in new directions; from Kerouac to Woolf, Leopold to Abbey, Fitzgerald to Steinbeck, and Stegner to McPhee.   In the real world it is harder to find a mentor who shares your tastes and can make new suggestions.  I am lucky now to have my friend Andy as my reading associate. Andy doesn’t sleep a lot so he reads voraciously, anything and everything western.  He has steered me from McCarthy to McMurtry, Sprague to Kitteridge, Guthrie to Reisner and from Bass to Doig. Andy has read them all and always has a new book or author for me to check out.  Literally.

He left me a note a while back and all it said was Kent Haruf.  I knew what that meant and it felt like a new door had already been opened for me.  Walking eagerly down the Library’s alphabetical Fiction Isle, I found Haruf nestled comfortably between Jim Harrison and Ernest Hemingway, my favorites.  I randomly grabbed a heavy hardbound edition of the book with the nicest cover, called “Plainsong”, and checked it out. 

Kent Haruf is a teacher at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and sometimes lives in Salida, Colorado.  The setting for all of his books is Holt, Colorado, patterned after the north east Colorado town of Yuma, on the edge of the Great Plains where he lived in the early 80’s.  A ““Plainsong”” is technically a body of chants used in the liturgies of the Western Church, but Haruf has explained the title as “any simple and unadorned melody or air”, most likely emanating from the Great Plains of the western United States.

“Plainsong” was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the New York Times called it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.” “Plainsong” won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

“Plainsong” blew me away.  Seldom have I read a book so deceptively simple and lyrical in style, and so well written that it evoked a deep emotional reaction.  I was reading it before bed one night and my wife asked me if I was crying.  I said yes because the characters were so real, so hurting and so good.  This is a compelling narrative about the town of Holt as exemplified by a pregnant school girl, a lonely schoolteacher, a pair of old, curmudgeon bachelor-brother farmers, two young boys abandoned by their mother and trying struggling father, trying to start his life over.  It is a story of community and compassion, and about our natural predilection to help each other in times of need, whether it is large or small.  It is about the inherent good in most of us and our inclination to bond together in our small communities, whether they are our towns or families, bars or our jobs.  Life on the plains seems too hard to go through isolated and alone, too lonely sometimes to even to try.  But we do try, with a little help from our friends. 

This is complete story with villains and thieves, heroes and protagonists, good woman and everyman.  It is a positive, uplifting story about the good in our human nature and our natural connections to others.  It does not punch you in the face but it infiltrates your soul.  Haruf craftily writes a simple story that builds on itself into a convincing tale of the human condition.  It is easy on the eyes and gentle on the mind.  The arc of this story flows thru your senses like the story of our lives and our towns, like the great American Novel should.  His everyday prose is neither flamboyant nor esoteric.  He uses the right words, not the biggest or the most words. 

You wonder if this story told itself to the writer during a period of inspiration, as he wrote it, revealing his subconscious view of the human condition, or if he technically blocked out the story, beginning to end, before he started.  I like to think the former.  This is literature.  Art divinely inspired and merely translated by the author, like a great song or sculpture.  In these times of isolation and ideological diversion this story attempts to bring us together in a spirit of compromise of consensus that minimizes the things that divide us and magnifies the things we have in common. 

When I finished “Plainsong” I wanted more.  The story was not tied into a neat bow or a happy Hollywood ending.  To my surprise this book was the first of the ‘Holt Trilogy’ followed by “Eventide” and “Benediction”.  These stories involve the trials and tribulations of the community of Holt with some repeating characters and story overlap.  They stand on their own, however, as singular stories with resonant themes of frailty, family, resilience, redemption, humanity and community.  They are worth the read but they fall off in content and feeling and are ultimately not as good as “Plainsong”. 

Haruf’s other early books such as “The Ties That Bind” and “Where you Once Belonged” show the progression in story telling that got him to “Plainsong”.    His narrative to the High Plains photos by Peter Brown, in their award winning book “West of Last Chance”, is worth picking up to feed your fascination with images and stories of this  brutal and beautiful part of the country. 


Keep Kent Haruf in your pocket like a good old friend you call to cheer you up and renew your faith in mankind.  He will never let you down.