Peace Corps Writers

by Kent Haruf (Turkey 1965–67)
May 2004
320 pages
April 2004


Reviewed by John Flynn (Moldova 1993–95)

Kent Haruf was interviewed by Jeff Martin in November of 1999 for Peace Corps Writers.

KENT HARUF’S NOVEL Eventide begins on the last page, in the next to the last paragraph,Printer friendly version when his omniscient eye pulls away from protagonist Raymond McPheron and the new love interest in his life, Rose Tyler. Mr. Haruf in one masterful sentence a paragraph long renders with understated elegance an evening vista of the Colorado plains he knows so well:

And farther away, outside of town, out on the high plains, there would be the blue yardlights shining from the tall poles at all the isolated farms and ranches in all the flat treeless country, and presently the wind would come up, blowing across the open spaces, traveling without obstruction across the wide fields of winter wheat and across the ancient native pastures and the graveled county roads, carrying with it a pale dust as the dark approached and the nighttime gathered round.

     In passages such as this, Eventide lives up to the promise of Mr. Haruf’s earlier novels, particularly Plainsong, and The Tie That Binds. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of such daring prose and I found myself wanting more of it. Too much of the writing is spare and mannered to the point of being precocious, safe, precious and dauntingly aware of itself. At his worst, Mr. Haruf writes in a style reminiscent of par-boiled Cormac McCarthy. At its best, his prose suggests the quixotic transcendence of Faulkner, though unfortunately in this novel the influence of Hemingway waters this down, and the novel often reads as if an editor’s delete button emasculated Mr. Haruf’s attempts at a prosaic dream state.
     There is hardly any helpful punctuation and I don’t know why. It makes the novel more difficult to read than it should be, especially given its tepid payoff. Dialogue is used as a kind of contrapuntal ambient noise. Mr. Haruf thumbs his nose at the rule of dialogue that states it should move the story along. Does he think his readers won’t get bored? And he consistently commits the error of using dialogue to re-state what the actions of a character have already shown. Dialogue in this novel never surprises or enlightens or delights. It doesn’t add to the heightened realism. Like the lack of punctuation, it bogs the novel down.
     Mr. Haruf writes in a diminutive and overtly plain style that the likes of Norris or Dreiser wouldn’t have thought possible in the wild, wild West. Never does the prose take chances or dare to sound discovered. This is Iowa-city prose that is mannered to death. Nearly every chapter is the same length and designed in the same fashion, with one or two opening descriptive paragraphs followed by a couple of pages of predictable dialogue, and then a closing paragraph that’s always a kind of quiet moment. People always sleep at the end of the day. Every scene is set up and we are walked through bars and cafes and towns that are never described. We are there. Nothing happens. It’s dull. Hence, the book is dull.
     This is the Western novel as chamber music. Wallace Stegner, Larry McMurtry, Larry Woiwode, and Will Weaver have all written better and more ambitious books about the isolated tribulations of farmers, rancher brothers and rural Westerners. Mr. Haruf has certainly engineered a novel, but I’m afraid that in his quest for verisimilitude and plain style he has forgotten that it the symphony that rouses and the concerto puts one to sleep.
     If Holt, Colorado is not representative of small town America, then what is it? The real Colorado, like the rest of America is booming and burning up. Columbine, anyone? Yet Holt has no violently disaffected youth, no mall exit ramps, no burgeoning tracts of cheap housing, no gaming casinos on nearby tribal lands, no WalMart greeters, no QVC Shopping Network, no computers or internet, no patriotic gore or sons marching off to fight terrorism in far-away places. And no churches. How can an American town not have any churches, synagogues or VFW halls?
     But this leads to an intriguing question. Perhaps Mr. Haruf isn’t rendering a realistic novel of Colorado. Perhaps this novel is written out of a cynical post-modern perspective and Holt represents America as a void, a non-place, a cipher. After all, the air never smells of anything, least of all manure. And the town has streets named after various American cities, yet the reader never sees those streets. They are invisible, much like the Wagon Wheel Café, and Shattuck’s Café, and Duckwalls, and Weiger’s Drug. What do these places look like? What does the town look like? After 300 pages, I still don’t know. Perhaps I’m not supposed to. Perhaps Mr. Haruf is writing with nostalgia about an America that never was. As if Holt is a saccharine dream where residents float disembodied over their land like villagers in a Brueghel canvas.
     Fans of Mr. Haruf’s previous novels may likely enjoy following the excessive amount of characters in this book, and where their often-confusing separate journeys take them. I would have preferred if Mr. Haruf had taken the less commercial route and developed a deeper fugue of a widower in Raymond McPheron who loses his brother Harold in a tragic accident around page forty. What is it like to lose a brother in such a desolate place? I was hoping Mr. Haruf would mine something in the vernacular of William Kennedy’s brilliantly maudlin Phelans. By choosing, however, to be the stone that skips over a dozen weakly interconnected Holt lives, Mr. Haruf rejects interior literature for the market-driven superficial pastiche that now dominates pop fiction. As if all we American readers suffer from attention disorders. He pulls back from giving us Raymond McPheron’s tragic odyssey in any kind of fresh or felt-in-the-blood disturbing way. He plays it safe. In this sense, his novel is a sign of the times.
     Six months after his brother Harold dies, Raymond muses on the porch (where else?) after a grand-pappy call to Katie out of a Verizon commercial. All Raymond does is skim over a desultory thought about his deceased brother. This could happen anywhere. It doesn’t matter that Raymond’s a farmer. This is a Hallmark western made for TV, surely not a Sam Peckinpah. As fiction, it’s tepid, doesn’t pay off, at all. Nor is it a gritty courageous portrait of the mind and heart of a salt of the earth.
     Then again, Mr. Haruf may be saying that in our current times we do not feel deeply, at all. That we lack an inner life, and we are faithless automatons in enclaves such as Holt that are like miniatures on a knick-knack shelf. Raymond McPheron, then, is all of us. He may have a soul, but he’ll never find it because he’s no longer equipped to dig beneath the surface. He is the bull shot in the head because he caused a car accident. It’s the car that matters, not the man.
     Eventide is a sequel to Plainsong. Like many sequels, it rarely equals or surpasses its predecessor. Clearly, Mr. Haruf is a skilled author, but his prose won’t be memorable until he throws out the market blueprint and puts a more unique vision on the line.
John Flynn has published three chapbooks of poetry, one book of translations of the poetry of Nicolae Dabija, and a book of short stories. His writings have won several awards, including the HG Roberts Foundation, the Worcester County Poetry Association, RPCV Writers & Readers 1998 Poetry Award for his first chapbook Moments Between Cities, and the New England Poetry Club.
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