‘Where You Once Belonged’ by Kent Haruf

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 176pages; 1990.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Kent Haruf is one of my favourite authors. He only has a handful of novels to his name and I have read — and loved — them all. I had been saving this one up, knowing that once I had read it there would be no more Haruf novels to read, because he sadly died in 2014, just a couple of years after I discovered him.

Where You Once Belonged is his second novel. According to the copyright page in this edition, part of the book had previously been published in different form in Grand Street and Best American Stories 1987.

Like all the other books in Haruf’s backlist, this one is set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt. It has other trademarks I’ve come to associate with his work, too: well-rounded characters, an evocative prairie town setting, lean and elegant prose, whipsmart dialogue and an uncanny ability to tap into the inner workings of the human psyche.

But this tale doesn’t feel quite as polished as other novels he has written. The prose is characteristically taut, but the narrative feels pushed to its limits. It wanders a bit and lacks self-assuredness for it’s hard to tell if the story is about the narrator or the character he’s telling us about. Let me explain.

The story is narrated by Pat Arbuckle, the editor of the local newspaper, who went to school with a boy called Jack Burdette. Jack was the kind of kid who played pranks, got into trouble at school and was a bit of a handful, but he excelled at sport — he was taller and broader than his fellow students and looked like a man long before they did — which meant he was respected and popular, both on and off the pitch.

But as an adult, Jack takes advantage of people, including the people he’s closest to, and by the time anyone cottons on to his crimes, it’s too late: Jack’s upped sticks and is never seen again.

Eight years pass and then an older, fatter Jack is spotted in town. He’s sitting in a red Cadillac, which he’s parked outside the local tavern. The first local who notices him bolts to the sheriff’s office to report him — and then events play out in ways no one could possibly foresee…

It’s an interesting storyline and because Jack’s crimes are not revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the book, there’s enough intrigue to make the reader keep turning the pages. But the tale is told first-person style from Pat’s perspective, which means the focus swings between his own story — a humdrum working life and an unhappy marriage — and Jack’s story, and Haruf can’t quite seem to make up his mind which one should take precedent.

Of course that doesn’t make this a bad book — it’s just a little uneven and the storyline feels a bit thin. I suspect it would have been much stronger as a short story.

Where You Once Belonged is still a riveting read and it packs a real emotional punch. Its depiction of courtship and marriage, coupled with the 1960s setting and the brooding, melancholic nature of the story, reminded me very much of Richard Yates, another fine American writer.

If you haven’t read Haruf before, this probably isn’t the place to start; I’d argue this one is for the fans and “completists” only.

This is my 3rd book for #20BooksofSummer and my 22nd for #TBR40. According to the receipt I found buried in the back of this book, I purchased it from the Book Depository on 21 February 2013, so it has been in my TBR for more than six years!

27 thoughts on “‘Where You Once Belonged’ by Kent Haruf

  1. It’s sad when an author that we’ve learned to love, dies. I feel this way about Shirley Hazzard, one of my all time great writers and so few books, no backlist to enjoy either.

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  2. I’m sorry that your last Haruf was a little disappointing, Kim. You’ve made me think I should go back and read all of them again. It’s ages since I first read Plainsong. Hope you’re settling back into Australian life.

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    • Yes, I’d be tempted to go back and read the Plainsong trilogy again…except it’s on the other side of the world right now. All good here… flat found, furniture bought, now wrestling with internet service provider (I seem to have a faulty NBN box so can’t get online) and doing a whole bunch of freelance work in between for London-based clients.

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        • Thanks. I have a technician coming out tomorrow so hopefully I’ll be online this weekend. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the library using their WiFi connection this week!

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  3. I checked back through my reading diary and it seems I read this one back in 2000, shortly after reading Plainsong and The Tie That Binds. I honestly don’t remember a thing about it – even your review is sparking only the vaguest of recollections – but in a way this is a good thing, as it means that at some point I can go back and read it again and have it be as fresh as the first time I read it. I think I must have had a similar reaction to you though, since year 2000 me awarded both Plainsong and The Tie That Binds five stars, whereas Where You Once Belonged merited only four stars (which means it was still very good). And I completely understand putting off reading that one last novel by a favourite author – although he’s stilI very much alive, I keep holding off reading Alex Miller’s ‘The Ancestor Game’ just in case!

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    • Admittedly, it’s not a memorable story, probably because it’s so “thin” — basically it’s just a horrible man doing horrible things who goes on the run then comes back and does something even worse!

      Does that mean you’ve read all the Millers bar one? That’s good going… I do need to get back into his work… hopefully the library here has him in stock.

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  4. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2019 edition – Reading Matters

  5. His books are indeed lovely; I will have to pick up my Yates’ Revolutionary Road now that you’ve compared the two. Fancy finding a receipt in the back of your copy; surely my Yates is as old as that!

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    • I often kept receipts in the back of books for just this reason…so I can see how long it’s been in my TBR. I’ve not read Revolutionary Road, but if it’s anything like the film it’ll be a sad, depressing read 😢

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    • When I finished the Plainsong trilogy I ordered his two earlier books — this one and his debut — because I knew I just had to read everything by him. I’m not sure this book gets talked about much these days, if at all.

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          • I watched that film (it’s OUR Souls At Night) last year. Very enjoyable, though they changed the ending slightly from the book I think. Though I made the mistake of telling my Mum I’d watched it – bear in mind that with my Northern accent I say ‘our’ more like ‘are’…. the look of shock on her face….

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          • Our Souls at Night. Maybe it’s a part of the trilogy, but there is one about a woman and someone dying. I thought it wasn’t part of the trilogy.

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          • His books are as follows:
            The Tie That Binds (1984)
            Where You Once Belonged (1990)
            Plainsong (1999) (trilogy)
            Eventide (2004) (trilogy)
            Benediction (2013) (trilogy)
            Our Souls at Night (2015)

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  6. I like the idea of “fans & completists”. I’m a fan of Miagret and Georgette Heyer say, so am pleased to find one of either that I haven’t read (am often pleased to find one I have read). With Miles Franklin I might be a completist. I suspect it won’t be a pleasure to read the one she wrote in 1914 as by Mr & Mrs Oginblat, but I’ll do my duty anyway, one day – if the Mitchell has a copy.

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    • I like to think I’m a completist but looking at my favourite authors page I can see that I haven’t done a very good job of reading backlists in their entirety, with the exception of Haruf and Magnus Mills.

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  7. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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