Haruf's 'Eventide': the rewards of decency

May 30, 2004|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Eventide, by Kent Haruf. Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95.

In Eventide, Kent Haruf turns his crystalline prose to the unremarkable lives of people for whom loneliness is endemic, suffering expected and remedy a surprise. On the unforgiving Colorado high plains, the territory of Haruf's previous best-selling Plainsong, to which Eventide is a sequel, a low-grade violence is chronic.

Eventide alternates between three sets of characters. Two elderly bachelor brothers, Raymond and Harold, out of an inherent sense of decency, in the earlier novel took in a homeless pregnant young girl; the emotional consequences are profuse. An orphaned 11-year-old named DJ keeps house for his cranky grandfather. Two semi-retarded people, Luther and Betty, are unable to protect their two children, Richie and Joy Rae, from a vicious, sadistic relative.

The compassionate voice of the author redeems these seemingly predictable domestic tableaux. From the inconsequential details of lives enacted on the borderline of endurance, Haruf discovers the grandeur of human consolation.

Harold and Raymond have come to consider this one-time stranger, Victoria Roubideaux, and her baby, Katie, "family." Mary Wells next door takes an interest in neglected DJ, gently bandaging his elbow after he falls from a bicycle. Her daughter Dena befriends him. In an abandoned shed, with discarded furniture, forks and spoons, the children create a loving if temporary environment, an astonishing refuge. DJ tries to protect Richie from the schoolyard bullies. Raymond gives DJ a ride home one night and listens to him, the first adult ever to have done so.

None of these people escapes pain. None is capable even of articulating disappointment. Raymond's friend, the high school teacher Tom Guthrie, cannot console him when Harold is killed in a ranch accident; he searches for words, "but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing." All are as vulnerable as the paintless clapboard house where Raymond must now survive alone. This house, like the people, is so insubstantial "that the wind might blow through and find no resistance at all." Haruf's characters go to bed each night "consoled or not."

The year is chained by holidays that serve mostly as a reminder of all that has been lost, and it would seem hope is archaic.

Yet Victoria meets a kind man named Del Gutierrez, who works with respect helping Raymond on the ranch. Good people find each other, just as bad people find them. Tom Guthrie and his wife, Maggie, bring Raymond together with social worker Rose Tyler, and in a scene of exquisite tenderness Rose takes the old man back into her bedroom. "I doubt if I could do you any good," Raymond says politely. "Let's just see," Rose says.

As in life, the sorrows and defeats come more frequently, more swiftly than the victories. Then, Haruf suggests, so much more must we cherish moments of transcendence, gratuitous acts of kindness and love, when they do make their untimely, their stately appearance.

Eventide is a lovely novel, all the more for its uncompromising realism, its eschewing of the magical palliative of happy endings, its recognition that decency carries its own unique rewards.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. The latest of her 17 books, A Farewell to Justice, an account of Jim Garrison's investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy, will be published next fall. She has written a novel, biographies and criticism.

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