Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Plainsong' & 'Eventide'

I knew little of Kent Haruf until hearing him interviewed on publication of his 2004 novel Eventide. It was a sequel to 1999’s National Book Award-winning Plainsong, both written the way Haruf wrote all his novels: blindly, with a cap pulled over his eyes, as a way to block out the analytical impulses he feared would undermine his artistic aims. And spiritual ones: Haruf, the son of a Methodist minister (“gentle, non-evangelical, non-proselytizing”) told his interviewer he resented and rejected the idea there was nothing religious in his books, and not just because he considered the effort to write well a religion itself. There is a spirituality underpinning both Plainsong and Eventide, hinted at in the titles, made more evident over the course of the sparely wrought narratives, which are set in the small plains town of Holt, Colorado, and follow the interactions of farmers, teachers, children, and shopkeepers, ordinary folks whose reticence hides multitudes. “Many of my characters,” Haruf said, “knock on doors seeking solace, seeking sanctuary, and they get it frequently, and that to me is a religious act.” Haruf made it plainer than most writers how generosity and compassion shaped his portrayals, and he spoke of his writerly duty to “pay close attention to what [my characters] reveal, because their revelation is often very subtle.” Novelist Richard Russo said Haruf understood something essential—that the more specific a thing is, “the more it’s universal.” It took a long time for Haruf to arrive where he did; he spoke of having to tend his “pilot-light-sized flame of talent… religiously… like a kind of monk or acolyte.” He didn’t publish until he was in his forties, but the discipline never waned: At the time of his death in 2014, he was putting the finishing touches on what would be his final novel. Read Plainsong and Eventide both, but note well: it’s important they be read in order.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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