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!