You can buy Plainsong at amazon.com
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Kent Haruf's other books are listed in the bibliography.


Kent Haruf
By Kent Haruf (Turkey 1965–67)
Knopf, $24.00
1999
301 pages

Reviewed by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80)

Kent Haruf's Plainsong richly deserves the warm reception it has received from both reviewers and readers. In a blurb on the jacket, Rick Bass calls the novel “revolutionary.” That’s a strong statement. If Plainsong is in fact a revolutionary book, the locus of dissent may be in the author’s deeply grounded view about what matters, and about who matters, in contemporary America. Here is a completely contemporary story that manages to make irrelevant many of the clichés currently motivating much American fiction: alienation in late-capitalist society; the tyranny of images; the ubiquity of technology and its ravages against the human. None of that is to be found in Plainsong, yet one can scarcely imagine a story with a more immediate feel, a sense of being written today about today.
     The language of the novel has been justly praised. It is at once spare, striking, and specific. Passages frequently have the feel, the grainy texture, of a classic, a book your kids might be assigned in an English class some day. And Haruf accomplishes one of the most difficult challenges a writer faces: while making use of a limited number of words, images, and scenes, he leaves the reader with the inescapable impression of a world that is whole, interesting, and fired with meaning. That he pulls this off using a style — reflected in the title — that tends toward understatement is testimony to the strength of the vision behind the book.
     The story enlists a range of characters, male and female, from a refreshing variety of perspectives. With minimal fuss, the people who live in this part of the novel’s Colorado setting are credible and individual: Maggie Jones’s father, hostile in his senility; Harvey Schmidt, the barber who gives the boys Ike and Bobby a hard time when they come to collect for the newspaper; Mrs. Stearns, whose death so unsettles the boys that they set out on horseback to escape the crushing weight of their new knowledge. One reason for Haruf’s success in suggesting a world may be the authority with which he appears to shine a casual light on so many people in the community. It only appears casual, of course. The details are as precisely and intelligently selected as the details in a Hemingway story.
     Just as successful is Haruf’s writing about distinct aspects of rural and small town life: the death of Ike’s horse and the subsequent examination of the corpse by the vet, while the brothers look on in a state of shock; the McPheron brothers at work on their cattle ranch, particularly as seen for the first time through the eyes of Ike and Bobby; Guthrie’s encounters at school with Lloyd Crowder, the principal who tries to resolve, reluctantly but with a rough equity, the disciplinary-cum-political problem that Guthrie presents him by threatening to fail a basketball-team star. There is a danger inherent in writing about the social world that Haruf chooses to depict. It’s easy to come off sounding elegiac, or nostalgic, or even flatly escapist, longing for a way of life that is out of the mainstream or vanishing. What is so satisfying about Plainsong, however, is the persistent impression the novel creates that Haruf’s Colorado is as real as Internet addiction, as current as Starbucks, as common as telemarketers calling at dinnertime.
     The extended family that gathers at the end of the novel is an appealing group of individuals — the story’s good guys. That they come together as they do is the consequence, in part, of a primary assertion undergirding the narrative: that the McPheron Brothers — crusty, unskilled in the art of human communication, almost misanthropic in their work-bound isolation — would agree to take under their roof a young pregnant girl who has neither resources nor options to solve the problem of where to stay during her pregnancy. They do so at the shrewd, rather high-handed urging of Maggie Jones, who goads them into overcoming their reluctance and venturing a step beyond their set ways. This produces the novel’s tenderest moments, as the grizzled geezers and the expectant mother develop a relationship that surprises them all by its strength and by the satisfaction it brings. Some readers may find that this teeters on the edge of sentimentality. What saves it is the hard-edged prose, as well as the girl’s convincing escape to Denver and the depiction of her brief, dreary existence with the child’s father there.
     Plainsong is a book to be savored: a good read, buoyed by fresh, compelling prose, characters who matter, and the successful evocation of an authentically American place.
Mark Jacobs, a foreign service officer, is the author of Stone Cowboy, a novel, and most recently The Liberation of Little Heaven, a collection of short fiction. Both are published by Soho Press.
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