Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Haruf has gifted us all with an unadorned, moving little novel about the intertwined small-town lives of Holt County, north of Denver. Our cast of characters includes a couple of old ranchers with hearts of gold, a pregnant high school girl, two boys whose mother is suffering from depression, and a principled teacher. These lives get tangled up in various small-town doings. Ultimately, we’ve given a hopeful message about the ways community can pull together to help out with kindness and love.

The novel is well written, the prose neither flashy nor too wooden. In terms of tone, it’s Richard Russo without the flashes of wit and comedy; John Gardner without the stylistic brilliance or hopelessness.

The parallels drawn between humans and animals are likely exactly the way you’d think if you lived in a rural area. (Indeed, I’ve noticed this tendency amongst the few truly rural dwellers I know.) This shows up over and over – the parallel scenes in which the ranchers use a “calf extractor” is contrast with a young woman’s first exposure to a speculum. Later, the brothers even argue about thinking of her as a heifer. But none of this is mean-spirited. It seems to be from a genuine desire to make the a point that goes a little something like this: “While we are all just animals, subject to the same indignities of the flesh as the lowest herd beast, humans pull together through personal bonds which form communities. And that makes all the difference.”

There isn’t a lot more to say here. The plotting is prosaic. The characters sketches. The language very Iowa school. The net is vaguely heartwarming; like a Hallmark Special. Nice, sweet, just lurid enough in a few details to feel authentic, while not quite as legit as a Terry Allen tune.

I enjoyed the novel. It’s quite fast (I read it in two days, late summer, Texas), and fits firmly into the “stories of the American heartland” genre.

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