It is 8 a.m. in Colorado, and Kent Haruf is out getting wood from the woodpile. Haruf (rhymes with "sheriff') and his wife Cathy live in a log house at an elevation of 8,500 feet, not far from downtown Sedelia. They built the place four years ago after the success of Haruf's beautiful novel Plainsong allowed him to retire after 30 years of teaching English and writing.
While we're waiting for Haruf to come on the line, Cathy warns me that our conversation might be interrupted. She works for a local hospice and if calls come through, Kent will have to pass them along. "We always try to warn people because it's such a rude thing to do to put them on hold," she says. When Haruf does pick up the phone he is as unaffected and polite as his wife has been.
It is hard to explain why this seems so remarkable. Other famous writers are also friendly and forthcoming. But with Haruf and his wife one senses - or projects - that the normal human scale on which they choose to live their lives has to do with deep-seated conviction and a good bit of self-discipline. You hear something of this in the way Haruf talks about a grueling upcoming 30-city promotional tour for his magnificent new novel, Eventide.
"Knopf was very generous in their advance, [even though] I told them that I wouldn't tell them anything about the book or show them anything and that I would set my own deadline. They were fine with that, so I want to do my part and sell a few books for them. The other part of this is that the success of Plainsong was dependent upon the independent bookstores across this country - they hand-sold this book - so I feel a kind of debt and obligation to help them."
Readers make a critical mistake when they assume that the virtues - or vices - of a novel's characters are the same as those of its creator. But on this particular morning, it is more than tempting to find in Haruf's direct, thoughtful, and self-effacing conversation everything that is most uplifting in the characters who populate his fictional town of Holt, Colorado.
The High Plains of eastern Colorado has been the setting for all of Haruf's novels (his acclaimed first novel, The Tie That Binds; National Book Award finalist Plainsong; and his new novel, Eventide). Holt's geography is quite different from the Rockies, where Haruf now lives, but it's a region Haruf is very familiar with. "The High Plains of eastern Colorado is where I grew up. I had such affection for it as a kid, and I later taught school and high school out there for about seven years. So I know it well, probably better than any place else in the world. It's still the way I think the world should look."
That intimate knowledge of the place helps explain why Haruf is the author of some of the best fiction about American small-town and rural life being written today. As readers of Plainsong know, Haruf's taut, unsentimental storytelling and spare, graceful prose are capable of transporting the imagination to a deeper understanding of human responsibility and connection. Plainsong's story of the bachelor farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron taking in the pregnant teenager Victoria Roubideaux has a redemptive radiance that readers will long to see repeated in the new novel, Eventide.
But this is exactly what worries Kent Haruf. "You don't want to duplicate what you've already done," he says. "Even though there are similarities in structure and form and some characters who reappear, I hope I have not rewritten Plainsong."
Happily, neither Haruf nor his readers need worry. Eventide offers many of the pleasures of Plainsong: a strong storyline, Haruf's wonderful, unadorned prose and several familiar characters.
Eventide opens about four years after the events of Plainsong, with Victoria Roubideaux and her daughter, Kate, about to set off for Fort Collins (where Victoria will begin college) while the sweetly clumsy McPheron brothers hover awkwardly, lovingly in the background. With Victoria gone, the McPherons settle into the almost-satisfying, bone-wearying routine of ranch life, until misfortune strikes. Then Eventide takes on a very different tonality and complexion from its predecessor. If Plainsong is morning or afternoon on the prairie, then Eventide is dusk; it is filled with a beautiful but somber light.
One reason for the somber feel of this book is Haruf's heartrending portrayal of Holt's emotionally abandoned children. Eleven-year old DJ Kephart, for example, is one of the most vivid characters in recent fiction.
"Childhood is such a vulnerable, tender time," Haruf says. "So many things happen to kids, things that the people around them are doing and are not conscious of but that have a lasting effect on the children. And they are so unprotected. DJ, for example, has no power over what happens to him. He's born out of wedlock, his mother dies when he's little, and the only recourse is for him to go to his grandfather, who is an old man and probably doesn't want him to be there. But DJ is a boy who lives in an honorable way. He has enormous integrity and a clear moral code that he abides by. And yet he is powerless."
Even more remarkable is Haruf's tone-perfect, clear-eyed presentation of Betty and Luther Wallace. The Wallaces love their young children deeply but have limited intellectual capacity and are simply not able to protect and care for them, with tragic consequences.
"I do not want to portray the Wallaces in some sentimental or condescending way," Haruf says. "Within their own lives they have done the best that they can do, but the best they can do, unfortunately, is not good enough." In fact, Haruf's marvelous portrait of the Wallaces, with its capacity to inspire an unsentimental empathetic response, is proof of why great fiction always outshines even the very best sociology or psychology.
"You want to write books, on the most basic level, that people are so involved with that they turn the pages and need to find out how it ends," Haruf says reluctantly, after being pressed to talk about the meaning of his work. "My intention is to write clear, simple, direct sentences and to believe that if you write clearly and cleanly enough then the reader will get what you want him or her to get. Beyond that I want people to think that they have been in the presence of real people."
And in Eventide, we certainly do.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.