Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kent Haruf: Tight Prose On The High Plains

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This is the stuff you dream of writing. It's the stuff that makes you forget about cooking, or going to bed at night. Kent Haruf 's prose is spare and unsentimental, yet lithe as winter wheat blowing in the wind. He depicts everyday people who live in areas that are usually overlooked. The pregnant, homeless girl; the two ranching brothers who've never married; the woman who's lived with the tyranny of her violent father and later, the feebleness of a younger brother, and the social worker who has seen too many tragedies unfolding before her. All of his books take place on the high plains of Colorado, a rugged unforgiving landscape only for the most hearty who can endure isolation, wind and sand.

A finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, Plainsong artfully weaves together the lives of six people in the small farming town of Holt, Colorado. What's astonishing in how smoothly Haruf does it with a minimum of fuss and such exactness --one can only compare the structure to great architecture.

In each of his books, the characters come alive because of the emotional truths. Here's a bit from his first novel, The Tie That Binds, where the narrative voice just rolls along, spelling out the truth in a way that's matter-of-fact, but also descriptive. The overall effect is poignancy without sentimentality:
"But she was crying then. There wasn't any sound to it. It was past the point where the puny sound of a human voice can make any difference. She walked out of the house away from her father towards the hayfield to tell Lyman, with the unregarded tears falling onto the breast of her blouse. After that, I know of only two other times in her life that Edith Goodnough allowed herself to cry. Neither was at the death of her father."
The skill with which he writes, the choosing of the right words, when to put in short, sharp passages of description is so well wrought, that one is never distracted from the pull of the story. His latest book issued in January 2008, West of Last Chance, is about the lands and people of the high plains he writes about. Those who like Willa Cather's My Antonia, will no doubt find the same strength of character and storytelling as well.