Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Plainsong

Feeling too full? Had it with the heavy prose of Against the Day? Need the literary equivalent of a grappa?

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, will cleanse all those gunky neural pathways.

Plainsong follows seven characters through their lives in Holt, Colorado, a small farming town. Maggie Jones is high school teacher, strong, certain, kind. Victoria Roubideaux is the pregnant teenager who seeks Maggie's help. Maggie leads Victoria to the elderly MacPheron brothers, gruff ranchers living outside Holt who agree to take Victoria in. Tom Guthrie teaches history where Maggie works. His wife, Ella, has left the family to live with her sister, leaving their sons, Ike and Bobby, at home.

Haruf's prose is akin to the land he writes of: spare, elegant, precise. His sentences are reminscent of Hemingway's in their ability to convey much minimally. The book opens like this:

"Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform." (1)

Beautiful.

Here is Maggie, running into Harold McPheron at the market:

(Note: Plainsong does not use quotations when characters speak. I am following Haruf here.)

"This look recent to you? he said. He held the meat out toward her.
It looks bloody, she said.
I can't tell if it smells good. They got it wrapped up in all this goddamn plastic. You couldn't tell the working end of a skunk with this stuff on it.
I didn't know you ate skunks,
That's what I'm talking about. I can't tell what I'm eating with this goddamn plastic wrapped around it. It ain't like our own beef from the meat locker--when we get it I know what I'm getting." (161)

This amusing exchange highlights the timeless quality of Haruf's writng. There are no computers, cell telephones, satellite televisions, or handheld computer devices. In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, Haruf says "I don't pay that much attention to the internet. And I don't do much email. I don't care for it."

Birnbaum remarks "It's a brave new world."

Haruf: "Yeah. To me, I don't find that interesting. I feel I'm still in the previous century. I have not entered the 21st century."

How refreshing to hear that without guilt or shame. Richard Powers, speaking with John Freeman at Critical Mass, had this to say about technoogy:

"... so I think what has happened as the writers of my generation have come into our 40s I think there is an increasing comfort of readers to recognize that technology is not "out there" -- it's inside us. We build our technologies as a way of addressing all our anxieties and desires. They are our passions congealed into these prosthetic extensions of ourselves. The machines have changed the laws of time and space for us -- they do it in a way that hasn't been imposed on us from the outside in some inexorable march of greatness, but they do it in a way that reflects what we dreams ourselves capable of doing. All the things we used dream about -- instantaneous communication, flying through the air -- all of them have been born out."

Indeed, they have. For that very reason we must remember that great literature is about people. People who must make moral decisions, act well or badly, carry themsleves through life without the dubious distraction afforded by iPods or Playstations. People who do not turn to the internet in times of moral crisis, instead looking inward. A lot of people are forgetting how to do this. Or they never knew how to begin with. Or they suffer from the peculiar passivity that comes from a life spent staring into computer screens and televisions: they do not expect to act. Rather, they wait to be acted upon.

Haruf's characters are nothing like this. When Tom Guthrie is threatened for failing a student, he refuses to capitulate to the principal. When the boy attempts revenge on Ike and Bobby, Guthrie takes immediate action. He does not call the police, an injury lawyer, or the media. He acts, and he acts correctly.

As Victoria enters the final days of her pregnancy, she calmly awaits birth. When the contractions begin, "She wanted to do this right. She didn't want to be cheated by alarm or false emotion." (280)

Victoria never once falters, and is rewarded, as are we.

Robert Birnbaum's excellent interview may be found here.

Kent Haruf. Plainsong. Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 1999.

Authors, Book Reviews, Kent Haruf

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