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[whitespace] 'Plainsong' Pone-ography: Kent Haruf finds the rugged, pure-hearted heartland of America.


Plain as Crust

'Plainsong' affirms wholesome, simple rural values

By Elizabeth Costello

Whether we find it on a Chevy commercial or in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the notion of a pure-hearted heartland of America is an essential element of our national myth. In Plainsong (Knopf, 301 pages, $24), Kent Haruf sings the familiar tune of good guys and villains with nary a nod to the cynic. Set in the backwater town of Holt, Colo., Plainsong tells the tale of seven homespun folks trying to stay wholesome in the face of mental illness, teenage pregnancy and unruly bullying by the bad guys.

A plainsong, the book tells us, is "the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple or unadorned melody or air." Haruf's unadorned air is most successful when he describes the physical realities of life in the wide Colorado plain. The autopsy of a dead horse and the inoculation of a herd of cattle make up two of the book's most engrossing scenes.

Haruf's attempt at stylistic simplicity veers toward the abstract when he puts people in the spotlight. He tends to cut pairs of characters out of so exactly the same cloth that they might as well be talking to their own reflections. Ike and Bobby, sons of high school history teacher Tom Guthrie, are the most extreme in their doubleness, both in their physical characteristics and in their behavior: "They were nine and ten, with dark brown hair and unmarked faces . . . They watched their father out of identical blue eyes. Though there was a year between them they might have been twins."

The boys are silent much of the time and when they do talk they are almost always in agreement. Their similarities give the boys a spooky, ghostlike quality, as though they were haunting Holt rather than living there. Tom Guthrie is somewhat more believable as the mild-mannered teacher with a tough streak. Guthrie calmly refuses to let Russell Beckman, a villainous flunkee, pass history, but he resorts to violence when the bully attacks his sons. In his fight with the ignorant, unreasonable Beckman family, Tom Guthrie lets it be known that you can push him only so far. However, his relationship with his estranged, mentally ill wife is never given the depth of a double layer. There is little dialogue between Tom and Ella Guthrie, and what there is sounds like it came straight out of a soap opera script. When Ella confronts Tom with her decision to leave her family and move to Denver, their conversation is saturated with clichés like "I want something more than this. I wanted someone who wanted me for what I am. . . . You don't."

Ella Guthrie is not the only female character that Haruf never develops beyond the surface level. Maggie Jones, the helpful schoolteacher, and Victoria Roubideaux, the honest but pregnant teenager, might be the same character at different ages. They both embody a traditional type of female goodness, a certain calm, giving quality that one might associate with Ma Ingalls. Haruf ends Plainsong with an image of these noble women, nobly going about the tasks of womanhood:

"The two women came out onto the steps of the porch in the evening. ... Their dark hair was damp about their faces and their quiet faces were flushed from the cooking. ...And soon, very soon now they would call them in for supper."

The most interesting pair in the lot is the McPheron brothers--lonely old cattle ranchers who take Victoria in. Once I convinced the cynic in me to stop thinking of Bob Evans sausage commercials, I quite enjoyed their crusty dialogue. While they could easily be compressed into a single character, their conversations have a spark of humor and colloquialism that makes me want to believe in them.

Plainsong does nothing to further experiment with the novel as a fictional form, but it will satisfy the reader who is looking for a certain type of reassurance. The third of Haruf's novels set in Holt, the book is apparently selling quite well. Perhaps a story where the line between good and bad is so clearly drawn is comforting to some in these days of millennial madness .

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From the November 22, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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