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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Plainsong' connects with us all
Kent Haruf shows how a writer can make the most of minimalism

At a glance
Plainsong
by Kent Haruf

Vintage Books
301 pages, $13
paperback

Those of us who mark time's passing by the books we read tend to be a bit choosy. Sometimes we want big, Tom Clancy-type thrillers. Sometimes we want small, Paul Theroux-type reminiscences.

At various times we want to feel inspired, energized, reassured, frightened, provoked, calmed and/or any number of other emotions that you can name. Kent Haruf knows all that.

And like any good writer, he does his best to give us what we need.

Author of three novels, Haruf, 56, first visited Spokane in September 2000 to read from his book “Plainsong.” A National Book Award finalist, “Plainsong” is the focus of October's inaugural Spokane Is Reading project, which is sponsored by Spokane Public Library, Spokane County Library, Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane School District 81 and Spokane Community College.

It's a terrific choice. Haruf, also author of “Where You Once Belonged” and “The Tie That Binds,” has what some critics dismiss as a minimalist style. What that means, essentially, is that he doesn't waste a lot of time giving us information that we don't need.
But that’s one of Haruf’s strengths. He's much more concerned with showing us what his characters do than explaining how they feel.

The book is set in Holt, Colo., a small town in the eastern end of the state. Cutting between the stories of various characters — a high-school teacher, his two sons, a young pregnant girl, a self-assured woman who takes the girl into her care and the two elderly farmer brothers whose aid she enlists — “Plainsong” follows the various happenings that occur over the course of a year.

While offering nothing close to a Disneyland view of life, Haruf manages to show how even the most troubled among us can find meaning by forming connections with others. Haruf doesn’t give us a happy ending so much as provide the possibility for one, and that contributes to the novel’s overall realistic, though hopeful, tone.

Haruf uses the title in more than one sense. Defined in the dictionary as “any simple and unadorned melody or air,” it refers, as Haruf said in one interview, to “centuries-old matters ... told in a plain, unadorned manner.” He intends it here as “a simple direct song about the plains and plain matters.”

And, as the book indicates, sometimes it is the simplest, most basic means of writing that best captures a story. Or, at the very least, a moment. Take the first glimpse that we get of the elderly brothers McPheron:

“They had the cattle in the corral already, the mother cows and the two-year-old heifers waiting in the bright cold late-fall afternoon. The cows were moiling and bawling and the dust rose in the cold air and hung above the corrals and chutes like brown clouds of gnats hung above the cold ground. The two old McPheron brothers stood at the far end of the corral surveying the cattle. They wore jeans and boots and canvas chore jackets and caps with flannel earflaps. At the tip of Harold's nose a watery drip quivered, then dropped off, while Raymond's eyes were bleary and red from the cow dust and the cold. They were almost ready now.”

Minimalism? Maybe.

But since when is that necessarily a bad thing?


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