06 October 2006


I picked up Plainsong from the local library. I was attracted by the pretty picture of stormclouds on the front and the fact that it been nominated for but not won an award (I have nothing against awards, and would like to win one myself some day, but as a general rule I find that I don't enjoy award winning books, especially Pulitzer winners, so I don't generally pick those up). One ought not to judge a book by its cover, of course, but books contain lots and lots of words and the only way to know if one is any good is to read the whole thing, which is untenable, standing there in the library. So yes, I buy books based on whether I like the cover or not. Of course I buy books for other reasons, but I daresay a huge majority of people sometimes buy books because they like the covers.

The picture of the author, Kent Haruf, on the second page makes Mr. Haruf look almost exactly like one of the people I work with. Scary, actually. Anyway, that's beside the point.

The point being that this book was outstanding. And I'm almost surprised I can say that. Mr. Haruf has a very particular writing style, very spare and simple (almost no adverbs at all, which you may have noticed I use rather a lot), never a longer word where a shorter one will do, hardly a comma to be found, sentences that might be called run-on if you were in fourth grade. For example:
He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.
I could never write a sentence like that. Not because I wouldn't deign to run a sentence on so (this one here is going to be plenty long), not because I would be afraid of neglecting my friend the comma, but because I simply couldn't pull it off; I'm not good enough. Maybe someday.

Plainsong is written like that. Haruf tells you plainly what his characters did. And, he tells you what they said. That's a key point—the narrator here tells you what characters said. The characters don't say these things themselves, not in the immediate sense. Of course you have no doubt as to the narrator's veracity; it's just that there's no proper dialogue. Such as like here:
…Presently she stopped cranking the machine and put in another master.
What brings you here so early? she said.
Crowder wanted to talk to me.
What about?
Russell Beckman.
That little shit. What'd he do now?
Nothing. But he's going to if he wants to get out of American history.
Good luck, she said. She cranked the machine once and looked at the paper. Is that all that's bothering you?
Nothing's bothering me.
Like hell it isn't. I can see something is. She looked into his face, and he looked back without expression and sat smoking. Is it at home? she said.
He didn't answer but shrugged again and smoked.

I don't know how to tell you how amazed I am that I liked this. Loved it.

I set down and stopped reading The Shipping News because I didn't like the writing style Annie Proulx used in the book. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer. It was a great book, loved by millions. I didn't get past chapter two. Haruf's conventions in the writing of Plainsong are no less idiosyncratic and certainly I would have expected not to tolerate them. Instead I loved them. But for the fact that it's been done I'd try it myself. I don't know how or why, but this spare writing makes the book that much more beautiful.

And that's what the book is, beautiful. There are not many characters, not many important ones anyway. They all lead their own lives; none is central. Of course the story would hardly work if they didn't all connect, and they assuredly do. One of the advantages of setting a book in a place like Holt, Colorado (a town not at all unlike Goodnight, Nebraska) is that characters are plausibly all connected one to the next, because the town is just that small. Of course Victoria and Guthrie will intersect. How can any two people in the town not?

The story is itself beautiful. It's also hard; the characters do not have it easy. Things get worse before they get better. People hurt one another, not meaning to. And other people do mean to hurt one another, and succeed, and in the succeeding betray their own worst impulses and hurt themselves. But amidst the hardship and hurt there is love, there is the discovery of new relationships. People grow up. Some people change in ways they never thought they would, or would have to.

What Haruf has done here is no small feat: he's gotten everything right. The whole book feels right, the setting, the characters, their trials—it all smacks of life and it draws you in. And he did it while ignoring one of the most common writing conventions. I still don't know how he pulled it off, but I'm glad he did. This is one of the best books I've read this year.


Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued, but I must say, poor Shipping News. You should give it another shot someday. I also initially could not stand the style, but it had been highly recommended, so I soldiered through chapter two or three. And then became so utterly absorbed I finished the rest within about 36 hours.

Smitty said...

Having read this book and greatly enjoyed it I'm thinking I ought to pick up Shipping News again; if I enjoyed Haruf's writing so much surely I can accomodate Ms Proulx.