PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf Alfred A. Knopf 320 pp., $24
By any standard, Holt, Colo., seems to be normal. It's the epitome of small-town living: Everyone knows everyone else's business, the railroad crosses Main Street near the Gas and Go, waitresses at the highway diner call you "Hon."
But under the guise of daily life, things start to go wrong, and as fluidly as the seasons change on the Colorado plains, so do the lives of the richly-written characters in Kent Haruf's excellent new novel, "Plainsong."
Tom Guthrie, an American history teacher, watches as his depressed wife withdraws into her bedroom, then out of the house, and finally out of town entirely.
Guthrie finds himself trying to raise his two sons alone. At work, he attempts to deal with the irate and violent parents of a hot-tempered student forced to repeat his senior year, all the while dealing with his own romantic misgivings.
The two Guthrie boys, Ike and Bobby, too astute to be only 10 and 11, watch at an unnatural distance as their mother drifts away from the family. At the same time, they find friendship with an elderly, chain-smoking woman, Iva Sterns, a customer on their paper route and one of the novel's most wonderfully written characters.
On one trip to her tiny apartment, they find it "just as it always was: crowded rooms that were too hot, the stores of papers and old bills on the floor and the grocery sacks of her saved remnants loaded onto the ironing board and the portable TV on top of the big hardwood console, and over it all the inevitable smell of her cigarette smoke and the accumulation of Holt County dust. She shut the door and stood looking at them, thinking, considering, a hump-backed woman in a thin blue housedress and apron, wearing a pair of man's wool socks inside her worn slippers, leaning on her twin silver canes."
Across town, Victoria Roubideaux, a 17-year-old girl, finds herself pregnant and locked out of the house by her mother. Lacking a place to turn, she is begrudgingly taken in by brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron, two aging ranchers on the outskirts of town.
Bachelors by preference and living alone for the past 40 years, the McPheron brothers and this teenage mother create an awkward but caring family bound together by pink baby blankets and rusty farm machinery.
Under Haruf's poetic tone, his characters tend to take control of the novel, raising the story far above its apparently flat exterior. Because these characters are so strong, the reader begins to see that plot for Haruf is determined by the relationships between people and the land in which they live.
Recently nominated for the National Book Award, "Plainsong" delivers a delicate message of optimism and interdependence, all the while showing how landscape affects who we are and how we think.
*Christian Stayner is a high school senior at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Calif.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society