“Honey, listen to me,” one character urges another in Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong. “You are here now. This is where you are.”
“Here” is Holt County on the high plains of Colorado, and it’s the setting not only of Plainsong, a National Book Award finalist the year it appeared, but also of its two predecessors and its follow-ups, Eventide (2005) and Benediction (2013). When I heard of Haruf’s death last week, at seventy-one from cancer, I couldn’t help but think of Benediction’s cold opener unveiling a potentially unpromising conceit—terminal illness:
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examining room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
But the economy of language, the dispensing of conventional punctuation in dialogue, and the immediate clarity of characterization work to bring it off. Haruf seemed always to know where he stood, and what he wanted to do.
Places like Holt were home to Haruf when he was a boy, and though his family moved around a lot (his father was a Methodist minister) he absorbed the essence of these places which in composite became the vivid setting of his fiction. Haruf composed drafts blindly—he literally pulled a wool cap over his eyes as he typed—the better “to concentrate on the storytelling,” and judging from how believably Holt emerges across his books, it worked. “The ring of the [typewriter’s] return oriented him, as did the world he saw in his mind’s eye,” William Yardley evocatively puts it in his obituary of Haruf, whose wife, Cathy, is quoted later in the same piece: “ ‘He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,’ ” Mrs. Haruf recalled. ‘That’s not bad for all those years.’”
Few contemporary American novelists seem as successful as Haruf in linking people so closely with place, maybe because from the outset he dedicated himself to getting place right.
“One chapter of that beginning novel was set in what I for the first time called Holt County, and it was in that chapter that I discovered where I wanted to set all my stories from then on,” he told Granta in this 2012 interview.
The speech of his characters is as spare and unadorned as the surroundings, their livelihoods determined less by ambition or desire than the specific, quotidian needs of the community: There are farmers and teachers, store owners and pastors, and, when called for, a sheriff, doctor, or undertaker. There are also motherless boys, pregnant teens, and estranged children. Haruf’s tours of Holt are conducted via a semi-omniscient narrator who checks in with a handful of co-protagonists in round-robin fashion over the course of numerous short and tightly wrapped chapters. Through simple expression of thought and long silences, characters slowly reveal themselves until ordinary circumstances ultimately compel them to shed their instinctive reticence. Though the action takes place in the nominal present, the atmosphere is maybe best described as timeless Middle American, at a remove from though not oblivious to the churn and chaos of the larger world. Denver is within a half-day’s drive but no one with any sense would willingly go there.
This doesn’t make Haruf’s world any smaller. His realism isn’t the dirty variety served up by Raymond Carver and his imitators; rather, it’s weathered and hard-worn, and more welcoming than alienating—a plain kitchen with a plank table instead of a grubby truck stop haunted by the lost. Haruf on his way to becoming a writer was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey, a conscientious objector, a hospital orderly, and a house parent at an orphanage, which perhaps explains not only his expansive cast of characters but also his unflagging compassion for them.
“I felt as though I had a little flame of talent,” Haruf said in that Granta interview, “not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out.” In the summer of 2014 he finished his final novel, titled Our Souls at Night; it’s due in May 2015, and like all the rest is set in Holt.