BY MIKE WALSH I spent a few years living in a small town in the northeastern plains of Colorado. That is also the same area where Kent Haruf set all of his novels, so I’ve felt an affinity with the man and his work. His novels remind me of that time in my life, those places, and the people who live in that area of the country. I’m also a fan of Haruf because his novels are just plain great. Haruf died on November 30 of liver disease. He was 71.
All of Haruf’s novels are set in the fictional town of Holt. It’s modeled on the real town of Yuma, where Haruf spent several years in the 80s teaching high school English. This area of Colorado is close to the borders of Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. The land is flat and dry, the main business is agriculture, the sky is enormous, and you can see weather coming from 20 miles away. Haruf spent his entire career creating the fictional world of Holt, novel by novel, character by character, and he had a deep affection for the plainspoken people of that area. Each of his novels is about a different group of characters from the small town that are thrown together by fate. It’s a world of nobleness and passion, but also tragedy, cruelty, and loneliness.
In over 30 years of writing fiction, Haruf wrote just a handful of novels, and they’re all fairly short. From 1984’s The Tie That Binds to 2013’s Benediction, Haruf published five novels, one every six years. He was clearly in no hurry, and he wouldn’t be rushed. It is said that he wrote on a manual typewriter in a garden shed with his eyes closed.
Another novel, Our Souls at Night, is scheduled to be published next year. With two novels in the last couple years of his life, a much quicker pace than usual, you have to assume that Haruf knew the end of was coming. He wanted to finish his portrait of Holt.
He wrote spare, understated, beautifully crafted novels with “small” stories that carried huge emotional weight. Instead of major plot points, he focused on moments of emotional resonance. In Benediction, for example, an old man, Dad Lewis, who ran a hardware store in Holt for many decades, spends most of the novel in bed, slowly dying, cared for by his wife and daughter. Friends and employees visit, as does the young orphan girl who lives next door with her grandmother. Dad is visited by ghosts as well, including his gay son, whom Dad has not seen for 20 years and could not accept, his rough father who could not accept him, and a former employee Dad fired for stealing. The man eventually committed suicide. Wracked by guilt, Dad gives money to the man’s widow. It’s heavy and overwhelming, and the characters are full of sorrows, and Haruf carries it off eloquently without drawing attention to himself stylistically.
Haruf is known for portrayals of simple, small town folk. Many of them are noble. The dialog is beautiful for its directness and authenticity. The plots are often based on loss and perhaps salvation, as in Plainsong wherein like the pregnant teen Victoria is locked out by her mother, ignored by her boyfriend, and eventually comes to live with two elderly bachelor farmer brothers, who help and support her. The farmers, Harold and Raymond, even beat up her cad boyfriend. The farmers are Haruf’s most beloved characters.
Despite the plain, unadorned yet graceful prose, Haruf’s novels are also intense. In The Tie That Binds, a woman lives on a ranch with her father, who takes advantage of her helpfulness by keeping her working on the farm when he is too old for the work. Edith misses out on many things in life, like marriage and children, because she cannot bring herself to leave. When her selfish and tyrannical father finally dies, she ends up taking care of her disturbed brother. The Tie That Binds is told as a flashback, and the novel opens with Edith accused of her brother’s murder.
Some of Haruf’s characters are tough but kind and wise. They make moral decisions and are honest. But Haruf does not present Holt or northearstern Colorado as idyllic. Each novel features its share of ruthless bastards, like the bullying, pampered high school football star in Plainsong who harasses his teachers’ kids because the teacher won’t give him a passing grade. He ends up stripping the kids and leaving them on the side of a road about 5 miles from town at night. They have to walk back into town. Later, the teacher shows up at the player’s house and ends up in a fistfight with him and his even more obnoxious father.
Then there’s the just-paroled character in Eventide who moves in with his mentally challenged sister and her family. He terrorizes the family and ends up beating their two kids savagely with a belt. In Where You Once Belonged, Jack Burnette, a rabble-rousing leech and ruffian who had been run out of Holt for theft and who abandoned his wife and son, comes back to town seven years later. His wife and son no longer want to have anything to do with him, but this he cannot abide, so he kidnaps them, beating up her boyfriend, the local newspaper’s editor, in the process.
Haruf’s characters are also suspicious of outsiders and sensitive to any perceived condescension. For example, in Benediction a young minister moves to Holt with his wife and young son not long after 9/11. During one sermon, he tells the congregation that Jesus would want the people of Holt to love Muslims. This doesn’t go over well, and several people storm out of the church. The next night while the minister is out for a walk, he is jumped, beaten, and left unconscious on the side of the road.
Haruf received many awards for his novels, and Plainsong was a finalist for a National Book Award. The strong sales of Plainsong and its follow-up Eventide gave Haruf some financial security toward the end of his life.
My uncle from Colorado had told me about Haruf in the late 80s. He recommended that I read him, and I kept meaning to but never got around to it. I finally remembered Haruf in 2009 when Obama reportedly purchased a copy of Plainsong at a Martha’s Vineyard bookstore. So I read Plainsong and was hooked. During the following couple months, I read all of Haruf’s novels. Since then I’ve been waiting anxiously for new ones. There has been just one, Benediction. Sadly, there will be just one more. Our Souls at Night will be published in May.