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[498] Eventide – Kent Haruf

” They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer. They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after other through the wire gate. ” (Part I, Ch.1, p.3)

Eventide is the sequel to Plainsong. The novel returns to the high-plains town of Holt, Colorado, where the McPheron brothers have become the surrogate fathers to Victoria Roubideaux, who was kicked out of her house when she became pregnant over two years ago. The crusty old farmers have taken her in and now grown used to the presence of other new people in their lives. Eventide begins with Victoria leaving the old brothers to attend college in Fort Collins.

Living with his brother seventeen miles out south of Holt he had been alone since that day when they were teenage boys and they’d learned that their parents had been killed in the Chevrolet truck out on the oiled road east of Philips. But they had been alone together, and they had done all the work there was to do and eaten and talked and thought out things together, and at night they had gone up to bed at the same hour and in the mornings had risen at the same time and gone out once more to the day’s work, each one ever in the presence of the other, almost as if they were a long-suited married couple . . . (Part III, Ch.20, p.131)

An accident on the ranch claims Harold’s life, and leaves Raymond hospitalized. Raymond, who is inured to his brother’s company all his life, has to live on and find new adventures and friends to fill the void. At the hospital he strikes up a friendship with eleven-year-old DJ Kephart, who cares for his elderly, alcoholic grandfather with pneumonia. The reticent boy, too serious and responsible for his age, befriends the daughter of his neighbor, Mary Wells, who, eaten up by her failed marriage, slowly falls into pieces. Other than Harold’s death, which is one of the plot hinges, Haruf also introduces Luther and Betty Wallace, the disabled trailer couple who fails to protect their children from an abusive relative, Hoyt Raines (the only villain in the book who later gets into a tavern brawl with the boy and his grandfather). The social work of the Wallace case is attended by Rose Tyler, a middle-age woman who has been widowed for thirty years. She later shows Raymond McPheron new hope in face of tragedy. As all these lives in Holt intersect, their drama also unfold and come in full circle.

Eventide is a very quiet novel—almost too quiet. While the book captures that human frailty and resilience, showing how willingly ones perform act of goodwill. Haruf has not outdone himself compared to Plainsong. I understand the point he’s trying to convey: that people unrelated by blood are capable of forming families. The novel’s frame seems to exist solely to record the passing of time, as a series of peculiar circumstances transpire and demonstrate people’s goodheartedness. The moral picture it paints is too black-and-white, as there is no grey. I also wish he would update readers on Victoria’s relationship with her mother, as well as Tom Gutherie’s family.

300 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[484] The Tie That Binds – Kent Haruf

” She didn’t even go those seven miles into Holt very often. She stayed home. Jesus, that’s about all you can say: Edith Goodnough stayed home. And if you figure it up, if you do your arithmetic from those chiseled dates in the cemetery, then you know Edith was seventeen when her mother died in 1914; she was fifty-five when the old man died in 1952; and she was sixty-four when Lyman finally returned in 1961. It amounts to a lifetime of staying home. ” (Ch. 6, p.111)

The Tie That Binds is a novel of bleak simplicity, it’s almost as stark as the Colorado prairie in which it takes place. Haruf’s debut novel opens with a scene that is reminiscent of a mystery: Eighty-year-old Edith Goodnough lies in a hospital bed, IV taped to the back of her hand, police at the door. She is charged with murder. But the story, written in first person and told by rancher Sanders Roscoe, whose parents have been neighbor to the Goodnoughs for over half a century, is more human than most I have read. It begins before Edith Goodnough is born. The lives of the two families intertwine; their story assaults the reader slowly but it sneaks up on me very steadily, as Edith lives out her very constricted life.

She was completely alone. My dad had died; her father was finally dead, and Lyman was still back east somewhere, seeing cities. So it was not just for an afternoon or a month that she was alone, but for one year after another, on and on, with no particular reason for believing it would ever be one jot different. (Ch.8, p.155)

Edith and Lyman are brother and sister raised on the farm. Their mother died young. Their father, Roy Goodnough, is an ornery cuss who treats his family like possessions. An accident that renders him crippled has fixed Edith and Lyman for good. They are stuck clear up to their chins with the ranch. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was a timely calling for Lyman, who decided to join the army. Instead of being drafted, he ended up traveling around the country—for twenty years, avoiding home altogether. The responsibility on the ranch falls onto Edith, who forsakes a deep and true love (Sanders’ father John Roscoe has a romantic attachment to her) to care for her physically maimed and emotionally abusive father. Throughout the novel, Edith is seen as someone who is quiet and focused, continuing to endure by plain courage, determination, and a clear eye to duty. After the old man passed, her brother returned home, increasingly senile. When he was afflicted by a nervous breakdown, she assumed the same role as care-giver—her whole life is sealed with a series of ruts.

If you didn’t know them, you might have believed they were an old couple who still had reason to ride a Ferris wheel together. I hold that picture in mind. Ch.9, p.195)

The Tie That Binds exudes an elegiac sense as Haruf’s unadorned prose guides me through the lives of the Goodnoughs and the stoic truths of middle America landscapes. The interaction between the Roscoes and Goodnoughs evokes the simple decency of human beings, whereas Edith’s uncomplaining nature is an impeccable show of the tenacity of human spirit. The style is completely different from that in Plainsong, since it focuses primarily on one character, as seen from the perspective of a neighbor who has always been there. The language is spare but deep, steering away from sentimentality. This is a very quiet novel that contemplates the austerity and constriction of life.

246 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Back-to-back Haruf

Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Stoner is one, Crossing to Safety is another. Kent Haruf is the latest to join the league of John Williams and Wallace Stegner in my book. As soon as I turned the last page of Plainsong (more like finishing the review of the book), I got my hands on Haruf’s debut novel, The Tie That Binds. Haruf’s style is quiet and contemplative, his prose spare but the language is deep. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which the revelations of characters and their rising emotional tensions are held at perfect balance. In The Tie That Binds, the story is told in first person narrative. The neighbor unfolds the story of a woman who sacrifices her happiness in the name of her family.

Well, no, not nothing exactly. She didn’t just do nothing all that time. But she sure God didn’t go traveling off across the North American continent, either. She didn’t even go those seven miles into Holt very often. She stayed home. Jesus, that’s about all you can say: Edith Goodnough stayed home. And if you figure it up, if you do your arithmetic from those chiseled dates in the cemetery, then you know Edith was seventeen when her mother died in 1914; she was fifty-five when the old man died in 1952; and she was sixty-four when Lyman finally returned in 1961. It amounts to a lifetime of staying home. (Ch. 6, p.111)

Like Stegner, Haruf explores the lives of people who work the land in the stark America Middle West. He captures people and their lives, with a sense of dignity and tenacity of spirits. How can I not love Haruf?

[483] Plainsong – Kent Haruf

” In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. ” (Guthrie, p.6)

Plainsong follows the lives of a Colorado community as Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher whose wife suffers from a nervous breakdown, a teenage pregnant girl thrown out of her house, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, and two decrepit old bachelors who know more about farming and cattle than they do about people. The slow beginning quickly sneaks up on me, as the narrative of these unadorned lives, each allowing the challenge to run its course, builds in strength.

Plainsong is a quiet novel and Haruf executes the interactions of his characters with an unadorned manner. There is nothing cloying about the book, but gracious and redolent with the simplicity of a story based on human decency. What drives this novel forward and fully realizes its purpose is Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage girl who is thrown out of her mother’s house. Her teacher, maggie Jones, asks the McPherons brothers to take the girl in until she gives birth. Now these old brothers, whose folks died in a highway truck wreck when they were very young, have always stayed at home, farming and ranching. Crusty, lonesome, and independent, they possess an antiquity of manner and outmoded punctiliousness. Their interaction with Victoria is both humorous and heart-warming. Meanwhile, Tom Guthrie, whose wife withdraws into a rented apartment and decides to leave him and the boys, finds himself entangled in the life of a lying, pampered, and bullying student, who makes slanderous comment about the pregnant girl. The boy’s parents also attempt to blindside him at the school board meeting.

They called last night and said they would take you, that they’d try it. That’s great deal for them to say. I think it will be all right. You don’t have to be at all afraid of them. They’re about as good as men can be. They may be gruff and unpolished but they don’t mean anything by that, it’s only they’ve been alone so much. Think of living your life alone for half a century and more, like they have. (Victoria Roubideaux, p.123)

In Ike and Bobby Guthrie we find the younger versions of the McPherons: two boys who watch their mother recede and witness all the mortifications of flesh a town can offer. As Victoria’s pregnancy progresses, she once again withdraws to the mistake that is the cause of her current trouble, but not without the McPherons brothers’ intervention. In a way, she wakes up at last to a sense of where she is.

Plainsong is beautiful in its plainness. It quietly evokes the kindred spirits and simple decency in us that are either forgotten or distrusted. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which the revelations of characters and their rising emotional tensions are held at perfect balance. His prose is fine and spare but the language deep. The touching humor of their awkward interaction endows the story with a heartwarming dimensionality. Every once a while comes a book that reminds me of what great literature should be, and Haruf is in the league of my favorite prose stylists like Jon Hassler and Wallace Stegner.

301 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]