In a recent post, I reviewed the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, Benediction. The first book in this series was Plainsong. Today, nearly thirteen years after I read it, it remains one of my top ten books of all time. Somehow I skipped over the middle book, Eventide. Since I so loved the other two, I decided I’d better go back and see what happened in between.
It is by no means necessary to read these books in order. While there is a sequential view of life in Holt, CO, each book stands squarely on its own. And Eventide didn’t disappoint. It picks up with the McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, elderly ranchers living outside of Holt. Here’s how the book opens:
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.
This style is part of what makes all of Haruf’s writing so powerful. The spare, precise language succinctly evokes the time, the place, the people, the tone. Seemingly unadorned, these books contain some of the most beautiful and striking images I’ve ever read. The Amazon.com review hits it squarely: “Haruf’s books are so low-key and straightforward that a careless reader might miss the fact that they are about everything that life has to offer: love, sorrow, malice, understanding, and the connections that make and keep us human.”
There are several story lines to follow: that of the McPheron brothers and their teenage charge, Victoria Roubideaux; Luther and Betty Wallace, a mentally disabled couple raising their children as they try to negotiate the intricacies of modern society; DJ, an eleven-year-old boy responsible for himself and his elderly and infirm grandfather. The gist of the book is the individual struggles of these people and the small ways they provide succor to each other and others in their path.
This description may put you off by sounding sentimental or maudlin, but that’s because I don’t possess the same facility with language that Haruf does. He breathes life into his characters and situations with the most delicate of tools: exquisite writing. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Ron Charles, book editor for the Washington Post, had to say about Haruf and Eventide:
It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that’s strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?
Quotations don’t do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf’s flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.
This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning to write.
If you want to see how a true master writes, if you want to meet characters who will stay with you for days, weeks, years after you close the book, if you want to find faith in the human spirit, then pick up one of these stellar books.