WHENEVER people ask me whether there is something they really ought to read, I always recommend Plainsong. At first sight, Kent Haruf’s novel is quite unremarkable: there’s no melodrama, no obvious hero, no recognisable villain. You could even argue that there’s no plot. But the narrative has a simple, haunting quality that seeps into your soul, and just won’t leave. At fewer than 300 pages, it is a miniature masterpiece.
First published in 1999, it’s set in Holt, a small plains town in Colorado, not far from Denver. It follows the interconnected lives of a handful of individuals over the course of roughly a year. What happens to them, and how they respond, is not that different from what might happen to you or me in the course of 12 months. Incidents of love, sex, sorrow, friendship, misunderstanding, joy, cruelty, and wonder are all in the mix. But, of course, even quotidian events change who we are, and how we think and feel. They open us up or close us down.
At the heart of the story is Victoria Roubideaux. She is in her mid-teens, still at school, and discovers that she’s pregnant. The unborn child’s father is absent and doesn’t want to be found. Victoria’s mother calls her a “stupid little slut”, and throws her out of the house — for good.
At her wit’s end, she asks for help from her teacher, Maggie Jones. When other options fail — in a stroke of eccentric, empathetic genius — Maggie asks two elderly, bachelor, cattle-farming brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron, to take her in:
They stared at her.
You’re fooling, Harold said.
No, Maggie said. I am not fooling.
They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick calloused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window towards the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Oh, it sounds crazy, she said. I suppose it is crazy. I don’t know. I don’t even care. But that girl needs somebody and I’m ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you — she smiled at them — you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die some day without ever having enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.
The slow tick of the developing relationship between the brothers and their house guest provides the central joy and heartache of the story. Since the death of their mother, Raymond and Harold — creatures of habit — have developed a spare, terse banter interspersed with routine silence. It does not invite ease or intimacy. Victoria is shy, internalised, and an outsider. This will be awkward.
Elsewhere in Holt, another teacher, Tom Guthrie, has problems in the classroom, and problems at home. His wife is depressed and distant, ready to leave. And his two young sons, Ike and Bobby, feel lost as their mother drifts from presence to absence. These two curious, innocent boys are the guileless truth-tellers of the book, asking the bland but difficult questions that no one quite has the words to answer.
Lyroky/Alamy The red barn, a defining feature of the plains
And this is an important element to Plainsong. Much of the story takes the form of straight-talking dialogue and clear, scrubbed description. There are no self-conscious poetic flourishes; in fact, there is no indulgence at all. Haruf avoids sentiment at all costs. But there is real lyricism under the surface. His gift is to champion small acts of human decency against a backdrop of cynicism and suspicion. He succeeds in that most Herculean task of the novelist: to make everyday good people more interesting than bad ones.
The book’s epigraph provides a handy definition of plainsong: “The unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church, from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” Unadorned melody just about says it. This book is like a piece of Shaker furniture: beautiful without feeling the need to show off.
Critics sometimes compare Haruf to writers such as Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver. But, although Plainsong often displays a stark realism — unafraid of shadows and occasional ugliness — it does not have the persistent dark undercurrent characteristic of Carver or McCarthy. If there is an undertow, it is closer to the old Protestant idea of common grace. The characters may not be able to explain themselves, but what they do in even the smallest of gestures speaks volumes.
If you find as much delight in Plainsong as I do, then you’ll be pleased to know that Haruf — who, sadly, died in 2014 — wrote another three novels based in Holt: Eventide (2004), Benediction (2013), and Our Souls at Night (published posthumously in 2015).
As is always true of the best of fiction, the author makes his story our story: in the words of George Herbert, “Heaven in ordinary.”
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf is published by Picador at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-4472-4044-0.
PLAINSONG — SOME QUESTIONS
- What can Bobby and Ike’s experiences teach us about the process of growing up and forming world-views?
- The title Plainsong refers both to the monophonic chants in Christian liturgy and also to the “plains” of the American Midwest. Why do you think Haruf chose this title?
- How does an inability to communicate affect the characters in the novel?
- Sexual violence is prevalent throughout the novel. Where might this violence stem from?
- The treatment of the breeding of cows and the experience of Victoria Robineaux are often juxtaposed. Is this significant?
- What does it mean to be a man in Holt? How do the characters struggle with negative male stereotypes? Are there any good male role-models in the novel?
- Harold asks Raymond, “How are you going to change now at this age?” How do the brothers bring about change?
- In what different ways is love expressed in the novel? Is it always obvious?
- How does the landscape — specifically the loneliness of the plains — figure in the novel?
- Is there hope for Russell Beckman? Who can teach him to live well?
IN OUR next reading groups page, on 1 November, we will print extra information about our next book Walk Humbly: Encouragements for living, working and being by Samuel Wells (Books, 5 July). It is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-78622-150-6.
Walk Humbly consists of eight beautifully written chapters, each with an “encouragement” for the reader to consider integrating into their lives: be humble, be grateful, be your own size, be gentle, be a person of praise, be faithful, be one body, be a blessing. Drawing on his knowledge of thinkers and writers before him, Samuel Wells presents each encouragement with thoughtful meditations on how each might relate to a fuller and more mindful life within the Christian faith. The book ends with a selection of “wonderings” that invite readers to reflect and speculate on what they have read.
Samuel Wells is the author of about 30 books on subjects including ministry and Christian ethics. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford, before training for ordination at Edinburgh Theological College and later completing a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics at Durham University. Ordained in 1991, he held parish appointments in Newcastle, Cambridge, and Norwich before becoming Dean of Duke University Chapel, North Carolina. He is now Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London, and is a Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. He is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day on Radio 4.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
December: Circe by Madeline Miller
January: On Beauty by Zadie Smith