She looked at the two old brothers….
I want you to think about taking this girl in.
They stared at her.
You’re fooling, Harold said.
No, Maggie said. I am not.
They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
Yesterday I finished reading Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, about an elderly hardware store owner, Dad Lewis, dying of cancer. I realized it was three years to the day since my father passed away from cancer. More than a coincidence, probably. I imagine something unconscious was at play. But I would have read this book eventually, no matter what, because I read everything Haruf writes.
My devotion to Haruf began when I read Plainsong, which he published in 1999. One of Haruf’s critics describes Haruf’s work as “exalted.” If you want to be exalted, get a copy of Plainsong or Eventide or Benediction and drop into the lives of the folks who live on the dry plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.
Haruf writes about goodhearted people way off the beaten path trying to do the right thing. His prose is entrancing, deceptively simple, powerful. You may begin to be lulled by the humanity Haruf captures on the page, but before you get to feeling incredulous he hits you with some dark reality: bigotry, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, addiction.
I was surprised Haruf said in an interview one of the books that most influenced him as a writer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that underwhelmed me both times I read it. But in Haruf’s plain, spare prose I can see Hemingway’s legacy. And it reinforces my interest in how what we read speaks to us, personally. That’s going to be different for everyone.
Benediction is a beautiful book, but an especially quiet and somber one. If you want to sample a novel by Haruf, I suggest you begin with Plainsong, which has more action and a greater diversity of intriguing characters, followed by Eventide and then Benediction. All are set in Holt, in eastern Colorado. Plainsong and Eventide are companion novels that feature the same cast, while Benediction introduces a new set of characters. I suspect Haruf may continue their stories in a future novel.
In Benediction, an eighty-year-old woman, two sixty-year-old women, and an eight-year-old girl skinny-dip on a hot afternoon in a muddy water trough for cattle. Cool and refreshed, they lie down under a tree in their thin, sleeveless cotton dresses to take a nap. Somehow, Haruf makes this scene riveting. It is emblematic of his writing.
Two of my favorite characters in all of fiction are Plainsong’s rough-hewn cattle ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, who take in Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teenager. They are so sweet, and clueless to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is their visit to the ob-gyn with Victoria.
As much as I enjoyed Benediction, the McPheron brothers from Plainsong and Eventide will always be in my heart.
Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.
This ain’t going to be no goddam Sunday school picnic.
No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.
Quotes from Plainsong, Kent Haruf. Vintage Books, New York: 1999.
BY KENT HARUF:
The Tie That Binds
Where You Once Belonged