Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Award, a Stegner Award, a Frank Waters Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. His novel Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The New Yorker Book Award.
"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely . . . it has the power to exalt the reader."
"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov."
"Haunting, virtuosic, inimitable."
"Resonant and meaningful. . . . A song of praise in honor of the lives it chronicles [and] a story about people's ability to adapt and redeem themselves, to heal the wounds of isolation by moving, gropingly and imperfectly, toward community."
When one examines wood for purposes of construction, one looks at the direction of the grain, its flow through the sanded plank. A grain's pattern offers indications of a plank's strength. Grain that wavers like a sine graph yields a weaker structure than a grain pattern more oriented and point-to-point. Woven throughout Plainsong is a deep-rooted sense of goodness and grace that almost seems hokey and antiquated in today's world. But goodness in this book is not bumpkin in the way that sophisticated city-dwellers often sneer. No, Plainsong is brave. It's also a slow book in the way that a mist only begins to saturate you with time. It takes hours or days perhaps to realize the strength of this book and allow it work upon you. One fingers the pages and comes in stages to know Tom Guthrie, his boys Ike and Bobby, the troubled but sweet girl Victoria Roubideaux, and the work-rough hands and wind-blistered faces of the McPheron brothers. It's the McPherons, two brothers who live alone on a farm outside of town, that buoy this novel of human cruelty with an unyielding air of decency. What's so compelling about the McPheron's good nature is that they are decent and the veracity of their decency is never challenged. That decency is a fact weighty and undeniable as a boulder. I imagine that if one could slice the McPheron brothers apart the way a tree's trunk becomes wood plank, one would see the grain of good in them run arrow straight. Normally I admire characters that skirt the terminator line between right and wrong. That teetering often makes the characters feel real, but that wobble between shades doesn't exist with Raymond and Harold McPheron. They are good people, simply that, and it's incredibly pleasing to encounter them, to be reminded that we can create such light and people that embody those characteristics might exist in the world.
There's a blurb on the front cover of this book by the New York Times that sums up the feeling I get from reading Plainsong: "A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader." Exalt the reader. How often do you encounter those words in the description of a novel? Often novels entertain, stun, confuse, surprise or excite us. But exalt? What a weighty word exalt is. It means to praise, to esteem, to revere, venerate, worship, lionize and ennoble. Ennoble. It seems like we often lose sight of what being noble means. It's not a large part of our reality tv lexicon. Nobility is a smaller facet of our modern character because to be noble means also we have to believe in something greater than ourselves. I think this capacity is shrinking in the human animal, especially the Internet-connected human animal. We have to be noble for something larger than our own concern. That can be God, Nation, or Community even. One can be noble for another person, one's daughter, son, mother, or even a stranger, but being noble is never an aggrandizing of self or self-image. To be noble is to not be solipsistic or surface-oriented. Many modern texts are concerned with their own aims and goals only. Such texts engineer ways to make their voice heard in the modern din of literary work by confusion, manipulation, or straight-out, unqualified weirdness. Often we laud the strange as being something new when in fact the strange is really nothing more than a weakness of communication, a grain run awry through the wood. There's a marked difference between having no meaning at all as opposed to merely being sly about meaning. But the sorts of inward-oriented texts I'm talking about here fulfill many needs still. They can surprise, flabbergast, stun, or entertain us, but such works cannot exalt a reader. Only a text concerned with reaching out can connect enough to exalt a reader.
In Plainsong, it's that exaltation that does me in, every time. See, I'm a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, his tortured, wonderful sentences, and the grim, nihilistic characters that inhabit his landscape. It's easy to consider the world in McCarthy's terms. Such an ill-hearted determinism often feels right when we face what we face in the world. In a book like Blood Meridian, one marvels at the intensity with which McCarthy stares into blackness, never wavering. He's showing us the true heart of the human! At one point, I thought it brave to do such a thing. Many consider Blood Meridian his best work, and a work like The Road to be inferior, but I tend to think of it differently now. While The Road is brutal and forlorn, there is a moment slowly built up to where the book offers a gesture, when the boy reaches out to take the stranger's hand, and that textual gesture is also the book itself reaching out to the reader. With that motion, the book elevates itself. Sometimes it behooves us to deny reality, because in that turning away, we have a chance to change things, to reimagine our world in different terms. Each denial is also the spore of recreation, or can be. The Road does not exalt the way Plainsong does, however, because the focus is different. Plainsong's focus has what John Gardner may have called a moral intent, or if that word is too bold, then perhaps one might proclaim the aim of Plainsong to be an effort to not tear down and lay waste, but instead to lift.
Some may consider these types of gestures to be remnants of the magical thinking that has plagued our species since its inception. And perhaps that is so. To be wedded to feeling or emotional states often presents a poor invention in the face of bald facts and many consider that moment at the finish of The Road to be McCarthy growing soft. I don't think so. It takes guts to reach out like that. It takes balls to write about hope, especially when cataclysm gathers the large crowd.
That's why Haruf's Plainsong, to me, is such a brave tome. It's not fanciful. It's constructed of straight lines and forward glances. The morality in Plainsong is gray, however, never unilateral, and its variations are wide as the sky in Holt, Colorado. Tom Guthrie takes questionable actions against one of his students, but he's also fierce in his defense of his children. There are no reasons, no explanations. The same sorts of things we get in McCarthy, we can find in Haruf (and one hears as well tones of Cormac in Kent's measured prose), but what we find in Plainsong that's not in Blood Meridian is a willingness to entertain that good does exist in the world, that good is not imaginary, nor foolhardy, nor magical, nor is good delivered from God or portioned out by spirits otherwise incorporeal and unseen. Instead, goodness is realized, or better yet, created in the world by how we act, how we treat others, and how we protect those that we love from the small-hearted. Because what is exaltation other than a recognition and transcendence of faults? What makes me weep when I read Plainsong is seeing how easy it is to be a good person and then wondering why, for me, it's always so hard.