Death is a funny thing. I started writing this review a few weeks ago, and at that time, Kent Haruf was still alive. As I write this now, though, the great man has passed away, leaving behind five (soon to be six) novels. To celebrate his life and work, I’m going to spend the next three weeks talking about the most well-known of his Holt novels: Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction.
Haruf shot to fame (well, as much as he ever would) with this novel, his third. Set in Holt, the fictional town where all his novels are set, it tells of the coming together of the McPheron brothers, renowned bachelors living together on their farm just out of the town borders, and Victoria Roubideaux, a teenager who finds herself pregnant, and without a home. Plainsong is simply the story of how they learn to live together.
Much like his characters, Kent Haruf is not interested in romantic evocations of the landscape in which he finds himself. His language is short, plain, but laser-sharp. There are no wasted words in any sentence, and yet the town of Holt is brought vivdly to life; not through its landscape, but through an entirely believable cast of characters is brought to life. In fact, it is not until the closing paragraphs that Haruf allows himself a moment of release, leaving us with a lingering image of the setting.
Perhaps this is on purpose—there’s a timelessness to the novel that makes it hard to pin down exactly when it’s set. Though it was published in 1999, there’s no suggestion of any kind of twentieth-century convenience available to these characters: it could as easily be set in the 1950s as the 1990s.
At the centre of this novel is a three-person relationship: Victoria, Harold and Raymond. Brought together almost by happenstance, these three people who have learned to live a silent life suddenly find themselves in a situation where they must communicate with others. For Harold and Raymond, this breaks down decades of barriers between not only themselves and the rest of the world, but between the two brothers themselves. Despite having lived together all their lives, you get the feeling they’re not big on sharing. So to find themselves suddenly having to look after a pregnant teenager is something of a shock.
Victoria, too, must learn to place trust in others. Her mother is no use, having kicked her out once she discovered the baby, and she refuses to tell anyone the identity of the baby’s father, figuring it to be easier simply not to open that conversation. And yet, in a moment of weakness, she does run away with the boy in question, perhaps to try to make the perfect life she was never afforded by having a single mother. It’s perfectly understandable, but at the same, as you see it happening, you just want to reach in and tell her what a bad idea it is.
Though his characters make mistakes, they do not seem to suffer the ultimate character flaw—being blissfully ignorant of what’s going on around them. So many characters seem to, for narrative reasons, ignore the bleeding obvious, even though any regular person would see it. Haruf is so much of a realist he won’t even bend to these writer’s rules simply for the sake of drama. His characters might be flawed, and do dumb things, but they seem to be aware of them, and want to make themselves better people. It’s something we all strive to do, even if it makes out lives less melodramatic.
Plainsong is not a novel about big ideas. It’s not got an Important Message it wants to tell you. It is the story of decent people doing decent things. And in a world like ours, perhaps that’s what we all need.