Reading List #3 — Plainsong

Yes, yes, here it is, the elusive #3. I decided to not be lazy (ironic, considering I feel like poop) and finish this entry.

This week, I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf. This book is about a group of characters in the town of Holt, Colorado. In a seemingly simple, episodic narrative, we learn all about this group of people and their wants, needs, desires, passions. They each have their own story, their own motivations, and they only touch each other’s lives peripherally. Haruf handles this crossing of lives carefully and skillfully.

Here’s a list of point of view characters:

Ike and Bobby — two little boys who are ten and nine respectively. Their mother has left them and their father. Their tale is definitely a coming-of-age narrative.
Guthrie — the father of Ike and Bobby. His wife, Ella, leaves him and moves to Denver to live with her sister.
Victoria Roubideaux — 17-year-old girl who gets pregnant and has to move out of her mother’s house. Maggie Jones takes care of her and sends her to the McHerons.
The McHerons — two old brothers who live out on a farm in the country. They take Victoria in when Maggie Jones is no longer able to take care of her.

I especially appreciated how Haruf is able to navigate these people’s lives in a way so that they are all interconnected in some way. Victoria stays with Maggie Jones, who teaches at the same school that Guthrie does. Guthrie and Maggie Jones (she is always referred to in this way, with both first and last names) begin a relationship near the end of the novel. Maggie Jones also is the one to suggest that Victoria stay with the McHerons, who know Guthrie because they all have farms.

I’m not sure I can say that this book has one central plot. Really it’s a glimpse in the lives of these characters for a few months — these are real people with real lives and real problems. Sometimes, one’s life doesn’t follow a central plot. But that doesn’t detract from the novel’s simple mastery of these events.

The thing that struck me most about this book was the simple, beautifully constructed prose. It was such an easy read, except for the one scene where Ike and Bobby watch their father and the veterinarian gut their recently-deceased horse — and even that was only hard because the prose was so precise.

… [H]e began by stabbing it into the horse’s stomach and working it sawlike along his length, sawing up through the tough hide and brownish hair and pulling with his other hand to open the cut wider. When the knife grew slippery with blood he wiped it and his red hands on the hair over the ribs. Then the yard-long incision had been made and Dick Sherman and their father began to peel back the hide, their father pulling the upper flap of skin and hair backward while Sherman shaved at it underneath, freeing the hide from the ribs and stomach lining, exposing a thin layer of yellow fat and the fine sheaf of red muscle. […] [The horse’s one eye] had not changed at all but was still wide open, still staring indifferently into the blank featureless sky above the barn as if he didn’t know or didn’t care what was being done to him, or as if he had decided to at last not to look anywhere else ever again.

And this lasts probably a good five or six pages. The precise language and indifferent, surgical tone makes it tough to read, but like a train wreck, you’re unable to look away until the damage is done.

The novel ends on the image of all the above-mentioned characters hanging out together at the McHerons’ farm.  There is a feeling of hope that pervades this scene; it’s like, even though everything is pretty shitty and a storm always seems to be brewing, there is still hope for the future in this tiny baby girl that Victoria has just birthed. I like how it ends on this note of hope, after everything has been so crazy throughout the novel.

How is this going to affect my current project?

The level of detail in these characters’ lives is amazing. Like I said before, they feel like real people with real problems — and the reader is there with them throughout their goods and bads. Haruf develops sympathy for his characters effortlessly, it seems. I can only hope to build that amount of detail for my characters, as well.

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