Haruf's 'Plainsong': loss of innocence

October 31, 1999|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

"Plainsong," by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf. 301 pages. $24.

"Plainsong," perfect of title, resonant and fine, is a stripped-down marvel of a book.

Set in the High Plains of Colorado, it explores the intersecting lives of a handful of people in the fictional small town of Holt. Tom Guthrie, middle-aged, teaches American history at the local high school; his wife, incapacitated by depression, has faded out of their marriage, leaving him to care for their sons, Ike and Bobby, ages 10 and 9. Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant teen-ager, kicked out of the house by her mother. Brothers Raymond and Harold McPheron are old bachelors; for decades, their life has been their ranch 17 miles south of town.

"Plainsong" deals with familiar themes: loss of innocence (in this case, that of the Guthrie boys and the McPherons, perhaps 60 years their senior), endurance of hardship and cruelty, finding crucial acts of kindness in unexpected quarters, and the parochial nature, good and bad, of small towns. These themes shape what must be one of the year's most satisfying literary novels.

Ike and Bobby face loss at a tender age, starting with their mother's withdrawal. They see one of their horses die tortured by a twisted gut; they see teen-age boys coerce a girl to have sex; they get roughed up by a high school thug; they even find a woman, one of the customers on their paper route, dead in her apartment. But Ike and Bobby are not victims; they are resilient. In fact, they come across as small versions of the much older McPherons.

The McPherons have toughed out many years on ranch, but they are in many ways innocents. The only woman they ever spent much time around was their mother, long since dead. When Maggie Jones, one of Tom Guthrie's teacher colleagues, asks them to let Victoria move in with them, they are dumbfounded.

Their halting efforts to make conversation with Victoria provide "Plainsong's" rare moments of humor. (Their first attempt -- they ask Victoria what she thinks about the market for soybeans and pork bellies -- falls flat.)

The McPheron ranch becomes a haven for Victoria -- twice -- and the awkward old men become so wrapped up in her approaching motherhood that they not only buy her a crib, they buy the most expensive one in the store.

All this might sound sappy or dreadful, a real tearjerker, and it could well be, were it not for Kent Haruf.

A professor at Southern Illinois University and the author of two previous (though little noticed) novels, Haruf is a master of restraint. His sentences are lean and powerful, rich with nouns and verbs -- and almost no clutter of adverbs. Haruf also forgoes omniscient narration and extended descriptions -- even quotation marks, for that matter.

"Plainsong," a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, is taut, crisp and evocative, a pleasure to read both for the stories it tells and the wonder of writing that it is.

Harry Merritt, a Sun features editor, also worked at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, where he edited award-winning series and was the paper's writing coach.

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