Tuesday, 22 January 2008

far from plain

by Kent Haruf

Having recently become a father I have found an almost immediate impact on my reading. Not simply that it's harder to get any done, but with that experience and the shift in perspective I found for instance that a book like Cormac McCarthy's The Road hit me right in the gut several times. Plainsong doesn't have anything like the raw power of that but its quiet, detailed account of the pregnancy of Victoria Roubideaux and the intersecting lives of several other residents of Haruf's fictional but recognisable Holt, Colorado had me smiling, nodding and laughing to myself in recognition many times over.

The epigraph tells us that plainsong is 'unisonous vocal music...any simple and unadorned melody or air'.There are four main 'voices' in this novel which name the chapters; Victoria Roubideaux who finds herself pregnant and homeless at 17, the elderly McPheron brothers who take her in on their remote farm, Tom Guthrie a school teacher whose marriage is in trouble and his two sons Ike and Bobby. But there is another character, Maggie Jones, who quietly connects these voices in unison, bringing Guthrie out of himself and Victoria and the McPherons together. What Haruf has created is an entirely believable account of a small town and the people who make it up.

When Victoria is thrown out of home by her mother it is Maggie who comforts her but opens her eyes, 'Honey, you've got to wake up. It's time for you to wake up now...Listen to me. You're here now. This is where you are'. Maggie's senile father makes it impossible for her to take her in herself so she fosters the connection with the McPherons 'You're going to die someday without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance'. It is a challenge the brothers accept and Haruf shows brilliantly their incomprehension and heartwarming efforts to accommodate her. On arriving and taking her tour of the house she notices 'hanging over the drying rods next to the bathtub, together with the two old towels, was a single fresh new pink towel that still had the store tag stapled to it.' When Maggie tells them they need to engage a woman in conversation of a evening their first hilarious attempt is a discussion about market forces. But slowly, steadily, they come to depend on each other and the brothers become like worried parents especially as the due date draws ever nearer. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the McPheron's exchanges. After Harold equates Victoria's restlessness with a pregnant heifer of theirs;

'She's a girl for christsakes. She's not a cow. You can't rate girls and cows together.
I was only just saying, Harold said. What are you getting so riled up about it for?
I don't appreciate you saying she's a heifer.
I never said she was one. I wouldn't say that for money.
It sounded like it to me. Like you was.
I just thought of it, is all, Harold said. Don't you ever think of something?
Yeah. I think of something sometimes.
Well then.
But I don't have to say it. Just because I think of it
All right. I talked out before I thought. You want to shoot me now or wait till full dark?
I'll have to let you know, Raymond said.

Tom Guthrie's wife Ella slowly estranges herself first by retreating to the bedroom, then a house across the street and finally by moving away to her sisters. With this and trouble at the school where he teaches he is distracted from the care of his two boys Ike and Bobby who find a surrogate parent in Mrs Stearns an old woman on their paper round. It is Maggie who draws him back into social life, showing her real strength in capturing this drifting man.

Throughout, Haruf writes with the kind of quiet confidence that comes from writers of a certain age. He shows great structural skill giving us first a brutal section showing the McPheron's checking their cows for calves and then Victoria's first examination by a doctor filled with compassion and her relief at finding all is well with the baby. His vivid descriptions of ordinary life give the reader a picture like clarity and he allows the spareseness of his characters language to show the unsentimental nature of life on the Colorado plains.


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