20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, USA, Vintage

‘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!

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haru

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 180 pages; 2016.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you will no doubt know that I am a Kent Haruf fan — indeed, he’s listed on my favourite authors page — but it was with some trepidation that I picked up his novel All Souls at Night. That’s because Haruf died shortly before its publication (aged 71 in November 2014) and it felt too sad to read, knowing it was his final novel.

As it turns out, the story it tells is as bittersweet as the circumstances in which I read it.

A simple tale well told

Our Souls at Night is a wise and simple tale about growing older, the importance of doing your own thing and the value of companionship.

It goes something like this: in Holt, Colorado (the same location used in all Haruf’s novels), an old lady (widow Addie Moore) invites an old man (her widowed neighbour, Louis Waters) to come sleep with her, but not in that way. The pair break with small town social conventions and spend their nights sleeping in the same bed to ward off loneliness.

What ensues is a relaxed, comfortable friendship in which they tell each other about their lives and share their innermost fears and secrets while they lie side by side in bed.

The narrative, mainly composed of dialogue (without the use of quotation marks), allows us to get to know both characters and their troubled pasts. Both have adult children who don’t appreciate or approve of their nightly arrangement, and yet when Addie’s six-year-old grandson comes to live with her it is clear that her relationship with Louis provides the stability young Jamie needs.

Typical Haruf style

The story is written in typical Haruf style with pared back, almost soporific prose, where every word is chosen as carefully as one might choose the pearls to thread onto a necklace. It is a masterclass in letting nouns and basic verbs do all the work without being ably assisted by adjectives or extraneous detail. This makes for a super fast, uncluttered read.

And yet the novel is strangely powerful and incredibly moving, taking the reader from joy to sorrow to laughter and back again, all within the space of just 180 pages.

For example, when Louis makes the decision to buy a dog to provide companionship to Addie’s grandson, I could feel my heart leaping with the joy of it. Later, I could feel it splintering in two when things begin to go slightly awry. And yet I also laughed a lot while reading this book, not least at the “in-jokes” Haruf includes that readers of his Plainsong trilogy will appreciate:

On a Sunday they sat at the kitchen table over their morning coffee. There was an advertisement in the Post about the coming theatrical season at the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts. 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.

All Souls at Night is a truly lovely, delicate and eloquent read, bringing to mind the likes of Anne Tyler and many of the Irish prose writers I admire so much.  It is a lasting tribute to a very fine writer indeed.

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer. I was actually given a review copy prior to the novel’s publication in June 2015, but somewhere along the line it got misplaced (probably when I put all my non-Australian books in storage prior to my Reading Australia project in 2016), so had to buy my own copy. I can’t recall the exact date, but it’s been in my TBR for less than a year.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 248 pages; 2002. 

When I first “discovered” American author Kent Haruf last year, I was so enamoured of his 1999 novel Plainsong that I promptly ordered his entire back catalogue. He wasn’t a particularly prolific author, so this meant I only had to buy a handful of titles.

Sadly, he died earlier this month, which is one reason I decided to pull The Tie That Binds from my shelf. First published in 1984, it was Haruf’s debut novel — and what an extraordinary novel it is.

Colarado setting

Set in the high plains of Colorado, just seven miles from the fictional town of Holt which features in all of Haruf’s novels, the book tells the tale of a pioneering farming family, the patriarch of which is a rather angry, embittered man called Roy Goodnough who comes from Iowa.

But the story is not about Roy per se nor his delicate wife, Ada, but his daughter, Edith, who is born on the farm and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. When the book opens she’s 80 years old, lying in hospital on an IV drip, with a police guard at the door. She’s been charged with murder, but the reader doesn’t know who she’s murdered — or why.

That’s where our narrator comes in to fill the gaps.

Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.

The narrator is Sanders Roscoe and he’s Edith’s neighbour, whom he knows well (once-upon-a-time his father asked Edith to marry him but Roy Goodnough was against it). In his intimate bar-room raconteur voice, Sanders spools right back to the start — before Edith was even born — to explain how events over the course of almost a century lead to the current situation.

A domineering father

It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” Edith and her younger brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.

Despite the strong sense of community and neighbourliness that surrounds them, the Goodnoughs must get by as best they can — resisting, wherever possible, dependence on anyone else but themselves, and all carried out against the backdrop of a harsh but beautiful landscape.

What they found when they got here — and I don’t believe Ada ever got over the shock of it — was a flat, treeless, dry place that had once belonged to Indians. It was a hell of a big piece of sandy country, with a horizon that in every direction must have seemed then — to someone who didn’t know how to look at this country and before Henry Ford and paved highways diminished it just a little  — to reach forever away under a sky in summer that didn’t give much of a good goddamn whether or not the bags of corn seed Roy was going to plant in some of that sand ever amounted to a piddling thing, and a sky in winter that, even if it was as blue as picture books said it should be and as high and bright as anybody could hope for, still didn’t care whether or not the frame house Roy was going to build ever managed to keep the snow from blowing in on Ada’s sewing machine.

Rural hardship

Through Sanders lovingly crafted narrative — angry one moment, disbelieving the next, but always fiercely defensive of Edith and her motivations — Haruf depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices Edith makes for her father and brother. There’s an aching sadness to this grand sweeping drama but it’s tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy.  And it shows how one woman’s steely determination and fortitude sustains her through good times and bad.

Like Haruf’s Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. This sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman who’s lead a tough and unremarkable life is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.

I got so drawn into the intimate narrative that I lost all sense of time; The Tie That Binds is a wonderful novel that deserves a wide readership. If you loved Plainsong, this one won’t disappoint — and if you’ve never read Haruf before, this is the perfect introduction.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Setting, USA

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.

One last summer

In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.

But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.

Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.

And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.

Ordinary people

There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.

And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their back stories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.

I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.

I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action”  in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.

But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.

And finally…

Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Eventide’ by Kent Haruf


Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 300 pages; 2005.

A couple of months ago you may remember that I read — and fell in love with — Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, the first in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. I loved the story so much that I raced through it in a matter of days and then felt completely bereft, because I wanted to spend more time with those wonderful characters.

Which is why reading Eventide, the second in the series, was so enjoyable: from the moment I opened the first page it was like being reacquainted with old friends.

Along with the evocative descriptions of rural Colorado — “The blue sandhills in  the far distance low on the low horizon, the sky so clear and empty, the air so dry” — there were the lovely old McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, scraping their boots on the porch before going indoors. And there, in the kitchen of their farmhouse, was Victoria Roubideaux, the unmarried mother whom they had taken in two years earlier. Ah, remember me, I wanted to say. I’ve missed you  guys so much.

Old characters and new characters

While Eventide can be read as a stand alone novel, I think it probably helps to have read Plainsong first, if only to understand the touching back story behind Victoria and the McPheron brothers. But aside from a couple of brief references to school teachers Tom Guthrie (and his sons) and Maggie Jones, who had starring roles in the earlier novel, there’s a host of new characters in this one.

Betty and Luther Wallace, a married couple living on the breadline, are beautifully depicted. They clearly have “issues” — they cannot keep their trailer clean, are worried that their children may be taken into care, live on food stamps and are “micro-managed” by a kindly and patient social worker — but Haruf never casts judgement. He lets his characters do that instead. “Would you look at that,” says a man waiting in a supermarket queue as Betty and Luther load up their purchases. “They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on foodstamps.”

Oh let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?
They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me.
But would you want to be them?
I’m not saying that.
What are you saying?
I’m not saying that.

Similarly, Karuf depicts the loneliness of 11-year-old DJ Kephart’s life so realistically that you want to reach into the novel and give him a hug. His tentative friendship with Dena, a girl struggling to comprehend the fact her father has fled the family home, and the way in which they seek solace in each another’s company is tenderly drawn.

Ordinary people

That the author can write about this diverse range of characters — from the very young to the very old, whether male or female — and make them seem flesh and blood real shows a very special talent for knowing what makes people tick. That they all share common traits —  loneliness, hardship and family troubles, among them — suggests he also knows how ordinary people struggle in their day-to-day lives. But he also knows that we are all capable of extraordinary courage and kindness. His novel is peppered with so many
moments of truth that it’s hard not to see Eventide as anything other than life-affirming.

I will admit that I read sections of this book with a giant lump in my throat, and yet there is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

I’m conscious that I haven’t really outlined the plot of the Eventide. But there’s not much to say: each set of characters wrestles with individual difficulties, goes through ups and downs, and comes out the other side slightly more confident than they were when they initially started out. And despite the carefully measured, tightly controlled prose, the narrative is utterly compelling — I read this book in the space of 36 hours and then wished I hadn’t been so greedy.

The good news is that I don’t have to wait long to visit Holt, Colorado once again — Benediction, the third instalment in the trilogy, will be published in the UK by Picador in April.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf


Fiction – paperback;  Picador; 301 pages; 2001.

When Canadian author Lauren B. Davis named Kent Haruf’s Plainsong as one of her favourite books for Triple Choice Tuesday earlier this year I knew I had to read it. “Not only is his writing nearly perfect in its precision (not an extra word, not a single imperfect metaphor, every detail exactly chosen), Haruf’s compassion, his simplicity, his understanding of the human soul are inspiring,” said Lauren. “Unlike so many contemporary writers, who expend vast quantities of energy being oh-so-clever, Haruf eschews wit for heart.”

She wasn’t wrong. Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.

A cast of troubled characters

The novel is set in rural Colorado in the 1980s and follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, each of whom has a personal problem to work through.

There is Tom Guthrie, a schoolteacher, who is left to bring up his two young boys — Ike, 10, and Bobby, 9 — when his wife, incapacitated by depression, leaves him.

There is Victoria Roubideaux, a 17-year-old schoolgirl kicked out of the family home by her mother when she falls unexpectedly pregnant.

And there are the two old, never-married, McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, who run a farm and take in Victoria despite never having lived with a woman before.

A larger cast of subsidiary characters, including the elderly Mrs Stearns, Victoria’s compassionate teacher Maggie Jones and no-hoper student Russell Beckman, provide extra interest and drama.

Carefully structured

The book is structured around several carefully intertwined narrative threads, which culminate in a rather splendid, satisfying — and moving — ending.

The plot isn’t particularly complex or even well developed, but that isn’t why you read this book. Instead, Plainsong‘s strengths lie in its evocative language, the brilliant characterisation and the “message” which is essentially an examination of the ties that bind people — and communities — together, and the ways in which our day-to-day struggles (whether at school, on the farm or in the home) make up the richness of our lives.

I particularly enjoyed the references to rural living, including the depiction of cattle farming and the descriptions of the rugged landscape and the changing seasons.

They [Ike and Bobby] stamped their feet and flapped their arms in their winter coats, warming themselves and watching their father and the old McPheron brothers in their efforts. Overhead the sky was as blue as just-washed café crockery and the sun was shining brilliantly. But the afternoon was turning even colder. There was something building up in the west. From far off over the mountains the clouds were stacking up.  The boys stayed near the smudge pot, trying to keep warm.

Haruf’s great skill as a writer is to make us feel involved in each of his character’s lives, whether it’s the young, slightly sad Guthrie boys who desperately miss their mother, or the shy, socially awkward McPheron brothers who are gentle, kindhearted but emotionally out of their depth when Victoria comes to live with them.

His prose, however, is what makes this book such a deeply affecting read. It is free of sentimentality. In fact, it is almost flat. Mostly it is delicate and lovely. There were times when it reminded me of Irish writer John McGahern, because it has that same simple but lyrical quality. And even the subject matter — ordinary lives lived against a backdrop of beautiful scenery and strong community ties — evoked that same feeling I get from the very best Irish fiction.

If you want to read something completely absorbing, something that will transport you into another world and introduce you to characters you will come to know and love, I cannot recommend Plainsong highly enough. It was first published in 1999 and a sequel, Eventide, was published five years later.