Small town blues

The struggling people in Kent Haruf's novel have nothing but each other

The glamour of the National Book Awards ceremony blows away the fusty air of the book world every November. Big publishers buy up acres of the banquet hall at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Little houses splurge a year's publicity budget on the $1,000-a-plate dinner. Even without the medals hanging from their necks, the nominees would stick out: New authors appear in ill-advised outfits, like red Nero jackets or brocade gowns inspired by "King Lear," choices probably pushed on these quiet, pensive writers by family members who insist they live it up for once. Famous authors in their own tuxedos or black dresses with mile-long shawls look mildly bored amid a swirl of friends and flacks. Really famous nominees don't show up, ensuring the most dramatic presence of all.

Kent Haruf couldn't have looked more uncomfortable amid all this glitz in 1999. A teacher at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he was there because his third novel, "Plainsong," had been nominated. Amid the New York literati, he had the demeanor of a man who was skeptical of the hoopla, a little embarrassed by all the attention, but too humble to do anything but endure until he could get back home.

The author is a good match with his work. "Plainsong" didn't win that night (the honor went to "Waiting," by Ha Jin), but it spent months on the bestseller list, gathering fans who responded to this quiet story about a little town on the High Plains east of Denver.

Now comes a sequel called "Eventide" with a quarter-million first printing and a well-timed made-for-TV version of "Plainsong" broadcast last month on CBS. Mr. Haruf should prepare to be uncomfortable again: This gathering storm of publicity is entirely deserved, no matter how incongruous it is with his stark and simple tale.

Readers of "Plainsong" will enter "Eventide" running, but newcomers needn't worry about picking up here. Once again, the story rotates through the lives of several families in Holt, Colo., most of whom appeared earlier. At the center are the McPheron brothers, crusty ranchers trying to keep stiff upper lips as they help Victoria and her baby pack for college. Two years ago, they took in Victoria when her mother threw her out for getting pregnant, and though the four of them made a strange and awkward family, the old men can't imagine life without her now.

In town, 17 miles away from the McPheron ranch, Luther and Betty Wallace struggle to negotiate the complexities of food stamps and utility bills, child rearing and medical care. The family's precarious equilibrium is easily jostled by trouble at school or a visit from Betty's violent uncle. Their social worker never flags, though she's desperate to numb herself to the trouble in Holt County. She's always ready to serve as their counselor, financier, or chauffeur if it will keep them together, but she can't suspend the sense of doom that hovers over these mentally impaired parents.

In fact, "Eventide" presents a grim sampling of family life. Eleven-year-old DJ cares for his infirm grandfather all alone, supervising the old man's monthly trips to the tavern as best he can. Next door, Mary Wells tries to maintain a pleasant home for her three little girls, but with no job and no word from her husband, the economics of survival grind away that hope.

This hardscrabble story kicks up a dust cloud of melancholy that will sting even the most hardened readers' eyes. The fractured families that Haruf portrays - particularly the wary children - live in a world without any of the financial and social supports familiar to people who can drop $24.95 for a novel. A touch of maudlin pity would have soiled the effect, but Haruf never gives us the easy comfort of feeling superior.

The relentless assaults of illness, meanness, or bad luck blow some of these people into oblivion. Angry cattle can maim, so can drunken uncles. But there are countervailing forces in this sparse Colorado landscape. You can see evidence in the comforting silence of the McPheron brothers' chores, in the extra effort of the Wallaces' social worker, and in neighbors' readiness to step in when routines are shattered. There are currents of affection here more persistent than strong, but ultimately capable of etching even the hard rock of these people's lives.

It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that's strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?

Quotations don't do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf's flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.

This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning to write. Not that everyone should sound like him, of course, but his prose serves as a corrective to the super-hip, self-consciously clever storytelling that lures too many writers onto the rocks. After all, not everyone can write like Zadie Smith. (Even Zadie Smith can't always write like Zadie Smith.)

"Eventide" never swells with climactic tragedy or heartrending triumph. Haruf holds the pace of his narrative to the slow passage of winter on the plains, letting moments of salvation thaw between hard frosts. But when Raymond McPheron finally finds the comfort he's lived without for so long, it's an affirmation of his nobility and patience that's utterly believable, quietly reassuring.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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