Author Appreciation: The Fiction of Kent Haruf — Surviving Ordinary Life with Grace
Kent Haruf’s novels remind us that even in the hardest lives, there is joy, often delicate and evanescent, but joy, nevertheless.
By Roberta Silman
When I proposed last spring that I write an essay about the late Kent Haruf (1943-2014), my intention was to direct Arts Fuse readers to a wonderful writer whose work would keep us all calm during what promised to be a long hot summer of campaigning for the upcoming Presidential election. I had no idea that this summer would begin with echoes of the ’60s, plunging us into the despair and confusion that has resulted from the terrible events during the week following the Fourth of July. Or that world terror would ramp up, giving us even more to worry about.
Yet, as I read through Haruf’s novels, I decided to stick to my original plan. For although there is not one African-American or Muslim character in these books, Haruf’s fiction speaks to us all. Its major concern is to show in the most accessible way how we manage to survive our mostly ordinary lives, dealing with sometimes devastating obstacles while maintaining our dignity and grace and even humor. And to remind us that even in the hardest lives, there is joy, often delicate and evanescent, but joy, nevertheless. In the world we live in this is not an easy task for any fiction writer, but Haruf manages it beautifully and that may be why he is so beloved.
Haruf was only seventy one years old when he died at the end of 2014 of lung disease. He was a native of Colorado and lived there for a lot of his life and set all his work in a fictional town called Holt on the wide plains of that state. Holt is supposedly based on Yuma, Colorado where he lived in the early 1980s. Because he created such a vivid small town in which several of the stories overlap, Haruf has been compared to William Faulkner, who set his work in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County (based on Lafayette County, Mississippi which includes Oxford), but that is a bit of a stretch. Faulkner’s concerns were larger and, as a southerner, he was enmeshed in the problems of race and miscegenation and brutality and evil that grew out of slavery and the Civil War. Moreover, his rich, probing imagination — one of the greatest in the history of American literature — made him strike out anew with every book he wrote. Although the characters and their stories often intersect, each novel is its own masterpiece.
Haruf’s novels are smaller in scope, not nearly as ambitious as Faulkners’, but taken together they form a whole that actually resembles more closely the work of his contemporary Larry Woiwode and Woiwode’s great novel of 1977, Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Both men are creating a tapestry of mid-western life in the twentieth century that is memorable and lasting.
Although Haruf went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when he was thirty, he did not publish his first novel until 1984 when he was forty-one. Called The Tie That Binds, it won a prestigious Whiting Award. It is my least favorite of his books. Written in the first person and narrated by the son of her neighbor, it tells the story of a stubborn, fascinating woman who, if luck had held, might have been the narrator’s mother. But there is a strange throbbing in the prose that some readers might call compelling — obviously the Whiting judges — but that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel as if Haruf had yet found his voice and, although his second book Where You Once Belonged (1990) was more accomplished, it, too, was written in the first person. Moreover, the presence of F. Scott Fitzgerald ’s The Great Gatsby hovered over it too strongly for me. After I finished that second novel I felt that Haruf was not entirely at ease with a first person narrator. When his masterpiece Plainsong was published in 2000, I felt vindicated.
Plainsong is a marvelous, patient story told by an omniscient narrator who seems to float above the town. It knows all there is to know about Tom Guthrie, the high school teacher, whose marriage to Ella is falling apart, his ten and eleven-year-old sons Ike and Bobby, his colleague Maggie Jones, her student Victoria Roubideaux, and the two McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, who lost their parents when they were young and have run a huge cattle ranch together for more than thirty years. The premise is brilliant: when Victoria who is being brought up by a negligent single mother gets pregnant and her mother throws her out, Maggie takes her in for a while. But things are complicated by Maggie’s demented father so the solution is to upend the McPherons’ quiet life by having Victoria live with them until the baby is born. As Haruf moves from one head to another in this now complicated story, we become so involved that it is as if they belong to us, that they have become our very own family. We watch with growing concern as Ike and Bobby struggle with their mother’s inability to help herself and their parents’ estrangement, as Victoria learns about the meaning of home, and as Tom and Maggie become more alive when hope and connection re-enter their lives.
But we don’t just read to learn what happens next. In exploring the lives of these seemingly ordinary folk working out solutions to their problems, Haruf’s prose seems to compel us to examine our own lives and dig deep into our own notions of loneliness and loss and hope and fear in a way that few books do. The scene of Harold and Raymond taking Victoria to buy a crib and other baby necessities is proof that even the most mundane activities, when described by a master writer, can serve as a blessing for the reader. Here are Ike and Bobby desperate to make their mother (who is living alone in a small house nearby) happy again, going from the grocery store, where she asked them to pick up some coffee, to Duckwall’s department store where they
stood in front of the perfume counter, debating for fifteen minutes, while the clerk behind the glass case showed them little bottles.
How much is that one? Ike said.
This one here?
This one is five dollars.
Finally they chose the one they could afford out of their paper-route money and from what was left of the dollars Raymond McPheron had given them for helping work cattle—a little blue bottle that said Evening in Paris on the label and had a very sweet scent and a silver stopper that closed it, and they still had enough money left over to buy a small box with a clear lid that contained a dozen round soft vari-colored balls of bubble bath. They had the clerk, the middle-aged woman, wrap the two boxes in paper with a bow.
Then they rode back to her house on Chicago Street. By now it was late afternoon and getting cold outside. The long shadows were reaching across the street. They waited a long time before she answered their knock, and when she came to the door she looked as though she had risen from a deep sleep.
They offered the can of coffee to her and she took it fumbling and then they held out the two boxes from Duckwall’s.
Did you buy these too?
What are they?
Open them why don’t you, Mother?
But what are they?
They’re for you.
Slowly she untied the bows and unwrapped the bright paper and saw what was in the boxes. She began to cry then. Tears ran unregarded down her face. Oh, dear God, she said. She was crying. She hugged the two boys with the boxes still clutched in her hands. Oh, God, what am I going to do about any of this?
Here is prose with a tenderness equal to that of Agee’s Death in the Family, Hemingway’s short stories, especially “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Bellow’s Herzog, The Furies by Janet Hobhouse, and Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, as well as Dubliners and To The Lighthouse.
With Plainsong, Haruf had hit his stride. He wrote a sequel to it, Eventide, which came out in 2004 and which follows the same characters but also ventures to the other side of the tracks of Holt, as it were, and examines lives that are darker and more resigned. Some critics complained that this sequel “was more of the same,” but many readers, like me, were happy to have more of the characters we knew and new ones, as well.
Moreover, Haruf seems more courageous in Eventide, venturing into more troubled waters where resilience and patience have no real traction. And where violence — not the petty violence of the parents of a loutish teenager that we saw in Plainsong — but violence perpetrated by a pathological “bad seed” prevails, despite valiant efforts to make changes in our welfare and criminal justice systems. There are violent people in this world, born that way or nurtured into violence. Surely we know that just by watching the news. But it is part of life. There are brutal human beings just as there are brutal animals, and both must be dealt with. It was as if Haruf is saying, in this sequel, that even in fiction, even in the best intended story that seeks to affirm life, we must accept those shadowy parts of life.
Nine years later, in 2013, Haruf turned to other characters in Holt and wrote Benediction about Dad Lewis and his wife Mary and their neighbors. Here the setting is more like the one in his story of Lyman and Edith Goodnough in The Tie That Binds. People who live on the fringes of Holt whose parents farmed the land and who still farm. But Dad Lewis always wanted more, so as a young man he bought the Holt hardware store and the farming is done by others even though the land still belongs to the family. Now, though, Dad (that is his name since his marriage) has been diagnosed with cancer and has only a year to live. This wrenching novel is the story of a long marriage, written with the same sensitivity and compassion we have come to expect, but also with an almost uncanny insight into what cannot be spoken between two people who are enormously attached to each other but who do not always agree about the really important things. In this case, it is a gay son, Frank, who lit out right after high school and whose absence has created a hole in their marriage. As he ruminates on his life, Dad faces his own limitations and regrets about Frank, and as we read we can feel our hearts ache at the failure of communication that can happen even when there is love. Here is proof, as there is all around us in our own lives, that love or even good intentions cannot heal everything. There is a similar disconnect between Dad and the two men who have worked for him for years — he thinks he’s being generous, they are not so sure.
In Benediction the town becomes less benign as we learn about the troubles of an out-spoken preacher whose life intersects with the Lewises and whose trajectory acts as a Greek chorus against which Dad’s story becomes even more poignant. For as this dying man reviews his life with uncommon perceptiveness and acknowledges his flaws with great courage, he takes refuge from his regret in dreams and hallucinations. One of the things that is striking about Haruf’s style is that he dispensed with quotation marks (just as Grace Paley did), thus giving a flow to the prose that now includes moving from the real to the imagined in ways that are surprising and very effective. We feel strongly what might have been, as we did in The Tie That Binds. But now Haruf is a more confident writer and the scenes he imagines with Dad’s son Frank and even his dead parents pierce the heart.
There is also an amazing capacity for forgiveness in Benediction. The neighbors play a big part — Berta May who is bringing up her granddaughter Alice, and Willa Johnson and her daughter Alene who has retired from teaching and come home to live with her mother. Here is a scene in which the Johnson women take Alice out to lunch to give her a treat but even more to assuage their own loneliness and longing for a child in their lives:
After the waitress brought their food Alice started to pour ketchup on her hamburger but it spurted out, covering it all and she set the bottle down and stared at her plate and put her hands in her lap. She looked as if she would cry.
We’re not going to worry about that, Alene said. We can just scrape it off. Do you want me to?
I can do it, the girl said. She scraped and spooned the ketchup off onto the side of her plate.
There, that’s better. Isn’t it.
The girl nodded and began to eat her French fries, picking them up one at a time and dipping the end in the ketchup and biting off the end and doing it in again and eating the rest by small bites. The Johnsons watched her.
I’ve only used squirt bottles, Alice said. I used to help my mother fill the ketchup and mustard bottles and the salt and pepper shakers.
Your mother worked in a restaurant?
Yes. She always had me help her.
Do you have any pictures of her?
I do at Grandma’s. The girl looked around the room. She looked back at her plate. That old man’s dying like my mother did.
You mean Mr. Lewis, the man next door to you.
He’s got it all over him. My mother had it in her breast.
We heard about that. We’re very sorry.
Alice looked out the doorway and said, She didn’t have blond hair like that waitress.
She had brown hair like me.
Then she must have been a very pretty woman. I wish we had known her.
How does she get her hair that way? So puffy like that.
Well. She must blow-dry it and tease it and then pick it.
As they drove back to town in the car after lunch, Alice was looking out the side window at the trees and houses going by. My mother said teasing your hair could damage it, she said.
So much is left unsaid and yet it in that small scene we learn so much about these three — the kindness of the women, their yearning to connect with Alice, and the grief that has embedded itself in the heart of that small child. We also see Haruf “writing women and children” as well as anyone else in his generation. We know that he had three daughters from his first marriage, that he was divorced and very happy with and devoted to his second wife, Cathy, who has special mention in his dedications and acknowledgments. He was obviously paying attention all the time; his grasp of the nuances of family life is nothing short of spectacular and it is his patience with mistakes that endears us to his characters and etches them in our minds.
His knowledge of the ways of women informs his last book, Our Souls At Night, which came out at the end of 2015. Reports are that he wrote it in forty-five days when he learned he had not much longer to live; it is more a novella than a full-fledged novel. But it showcases his talents and his unique ability to posit an idea — like Victoria going to the McPherons — and run with it. It begins like this: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.” Addie’s proposition may already be spawning all kinds of new relationships as I write because it makes such good sense. She suggests to Louis, also widowed, that he come over at night and lie in bed next to her.
That’s all I will tell you about this gem of a book where every word counts and where you read with growing amazement at the way people can forge a connection yet also feel obligated to bend to other responsibilities, like impossibly conventional children. We also see Haruf having a little fun with us. Towards the end when they are having Sunday morning coffee there is an advertisement for a drama that will be performed in Denver,
…Addie said, Did you see they’re going to do that last book about Holt County? The one with the old man dying and the preacher.
They did those other two so I guess they might as well do this one too, Louis said.
Did you see those earlier ones?
I saw them, But I can’t imagine two old ranchers taking in a pregnant girl.
It might happen, she said. People can do the unexpected.
I don’t know, Louis said. But it’s his imagination. He took all the physical details from Holt, the place names and the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. . . It’s all imagined. . .
He could write a book about us. How would you like that?
I don’t want to be in any book, Louis said.
But we’re no more improbable than the story of the two old cattle ranchers.
But this is different..
Well it’s us. We don’t seem improbable to me.
You thought so at first.
I didn’t know what to think. You surprised me.
Don’t you feel okay now?
It was a good surprise. I’m not saying it wasn’t. But I still don’t understand how you got the idea of asking me.
I told you. Loneliness. Wanting to talk in the night.
It seems brave. You were taking a risk.
Yes. But if it didn’t work I’d be no worse off…
Recently my daughters told me about a piece on regret in The Huffington Post, more like a poll about what people regret. Surprisingly, what they regretted was not what they did, but what they were too afraid to do. How prescient of Haruf to know that and write about it in his valedictory work.
So although these are very quiet books, they can also surprise, just like life. And although they have a very narrow focus, they are about the world, the people we see every day, whatever their race or religion or sexual orientation. As we face more and more volatility in our real lives when we turn on the television or try to decide who can best lead this country for the next four years, perhaps the very act of reading these books with their universal themes can ground us a little, can make us more thoughtful and less anxious. And if we keep our minds open, perhaps Kent Haruf’s impressive body of work can change our angle of vision enough to give us not only comfort, but guidance in the stressful months ahead.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.