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Wearing Out the West

Plainsong

by Kent Haruf
Knopf, 301 pp., $24.00

Plainsong is an inspired title for this spare, uninflected novel, the third in a sequence of novels by Kent Haruf set in the high plains of Holt County, Colorado, approximately one hundred fifty miles due east of Denver. It’s a “song” of the plains recounted in a very plain style. (“Plainsong: the unisorous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.”) Northeastern Colorado isn’t the West of spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas but a countryside of grim, featureless, and often arid distances. In Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), the Holt County region is described principally by what it was not, in the dismayed eyes of homesteaders pushing westward from Iowa in 1896:

…This country wasn’t like [Cedar County, Iowa]. It wasn’t any of that deep-black-topsoil country with forty inches of annual rain-fall and good drainage and plenty of hardwood close by—burr oak and black walnut—for lumber and fuel. What this country was was sandy, and it was dry, and for the most part it was just flat, with only some low sand hills running off in a northeasterly direction towards the Nebraska Panhandle. There were almost no trees.

In the words of the novel’s near-omniscient narrator, descendant of these original settlers, whose rueful, elegiac brooding makes of a mordant family drama something approaching small-scale tragedy, northeastern Colorado has a horizon that in every direction seems “to reach forever away” under a vast indifferent sky. Why establish a homestead in such a place? Why abandon the fecundity and community of the Midwest for the hardscrabble life of the frontier? Haruf’s portrait of the homesteader Roy Goodnough suggests that the ideal survivor in such circumstances wasn’t just self-sacrificing and puritanically frugal, pitiless in his exploitation of himself and his family, but obsessed to the point of madness. In a vividly described harvesting accident, the consequence of Goodnough’s frugality (he has mended his farm machinery with wire rather than buy new machines), this raging King Lear of the Colorado plains suffers an appropriate punishment:

[The horses] were used to being started by his yelling, and they couldn’t anyway distinguish his giddup from his goddamn.

And it was goddamn, he yelled. Goddamn it, to hell.

So the horses lunged forward. The six workhorses threw themselves hard into the harness, and the header moved, jolted forward…. The long bat of the reel came around, hit [Goodnough] hard, a blow across the nape of the neck. It dropped him onto his hands and knees. He braced his fall, but his fingers caught in the sharp blades of the sections. He had honed them that morning himself on the grindstone; they were knife sharp. Now his fingers were in them, between the bright blades, and his fingers were being mangled, torn to bone and bits, broken, cut, sliced. And he was yelling. All the time he was yelling, cursing, screaming, his feet kicking out wild behind him,… the horses wild with the noise and still lunging forward in the harness, shoving the header at him, carrying him forward with it, cutting wheat with his fingers…. His fingers were in the blades, being cut, sliced, hacked, and then it was over….

Goodnough survives this ghastly accident to live another thirty-seven years. His mania for his farm increases after he has only stumps for fingers and thumbs, “cruel, raw-looking hands” with which he gesticulates in choked rages at his only daughter, Edith, who sacrifices herself for him out of a sense of duty: hers is “the tie that binds.”

Haruf’s idealized yet intimate portrait of Edith Goodnough is both touching and exasperating; he shrinks from assessing, still less questioning, this homesteader’s daughter who blindly sacrifices her life to her father, but the reader is likely to come away from this grim tale with a sense of the purposelessness of such sacrifice. Does Edith Goodnough, like her tyrannical father, somehow symbolize the spirit of the high plains frontier? Is it a fear of life masquerading as “the tie that binds”? A fatal lack of imagination? Or is Edith’s sacrifice in some way noble and good? (Edith is presented as a courageous and “beautiful” woman even in her desperate old age.) It’s as if the talented Thea Kronberg of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915) had decided to remain in Moonstone, Colorado, for the rest of her life, smothered in a narrow, ignorant, smugly provincial domestic world, instead of embarking upon the adventure of independence in Chicago, and beyond.

Jack Burdette, the boorish antihero of Haruf’s 1990 novella Where You Once Belonged, is born in Holt, not on a farm; he’s vain, spoiled, stupidly self-centered, yet somehow charismatic and popular, a former high school athlete and macho bully who, though uneducated and lazy, is given the responsibility of managing the Holt farmers’ co-op grain elevator. When Burdette flees Holt after having embezzled $200,000 from his neighbors and friends, he seems to pass into local legend, like a less memorable Flem Snopes; when after eight years (the statute of limitations pertaining to his crime has run out) he brazenly reappears, as if wanting to provoke rage in his victims, Burdette has grown “massively fat” and has become even more contemptuous of others; yet again he manages to elude punishment, and even, in a melodramatic finale, kidnaps his abandoned wife and sons at gunpoint and disappears again. Burdette, seen entirely from the outside, is not a very engaging or convincing character; he’s a macho stereotype, and while such stereotypes surely exist, exploiting others and never punished, it isn’t clear why Haruf has written about him, and what significance he might have. The novella’s narrator is a folksy, affable ex-classmate of Burdette’s, editor of the weekly Holt Mercury, an intelligent and reasonable man but lacking in imagination, who can only back off from the riddle of Burdette. Where You Once Belonged is an adroitly written narrative most appealing in its local details and anecdotes, but it would have required the rhetorical virtuosity of, for instance, Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy to make of its illaudable subject more than the merely anecdotal.

Where such impassioned writers of what we might call the New Mythic West as Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx explore isolated, estranged characters in stark settings rendered in prose so “poetic” as to suggest the surreal, Kent Haruf, like Larry McMurtry (Leaving Cheyenne, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo) and Larry Watson (Montana 1948, White Crosses), concentrates on individuals in families and communities, in situations that involve moral choices, not metaphysical speculation; theirs is a purely “realist” vision and their prose reflects it. The bonds between people, not the distances, are explored. Where heroes are ordinary people, the prose that expresses them is rarely extraordinary. The quotidian itself emerges as an ethical value and what’s known as “common sense” is an ideal. In realist western fiction there are no abrupt excursions into a hallucinatory unknown that seems to open out of the very landscape, as in an early, and not atypical, scene in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992), in which a sixteen-year-old in West Texas, in 1949, saddles his horse and rides out to Wagnerian grandeur:

At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north and their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses…

So too, in her very different way, in prose that’s often funnily idiomatic and purposefully awkward, as crammed with minutiae as an old junk shop, E. Annie Proulx evokes the irrational beneath the seemingly rational, or the skull beneath the skin, by presenting loners, mostly male, in their own eccentric and intransigent terms. In her story “The Half-Skinned Steer,” a Wyoming native who has fled the stark landscape of his family’s ranch to establish a civilized life in Massachusetts is fatally drawn back to Wyoming as to increasingly seductive memories of his youth. Like a character in a cautionary tale who has unwisely vowed to deny his past, there he is, last we see of him, an elderly man lost in a snowstorm in the Wyoming wilds near his destination, forced to abandon his car and make his way on foot.

His shoes filled with snow, he walked against the wind, feeling as easy to tear as a man cut from paper. As he walked, he noticed that one from [a herd of steers] inside the fence was keeping pace with him. He walked more slowly, and the animal lagged. He stopped and turned. It stopped as well, huffing vapor, regarding him, a strip of snow on its back like a linen runner. It tossed its head, and in the howling, wintry light he saw he’d been wrong again, that the half-skinned steer’s red eye had been watching for him all along.

By contrast, Kent Haruf’s realist novels are low-keyed and modest in ambition. His plains landscapes are never apocalyptic and his livestock can be relied upon never to shift into nightmare images of madness and death. In Plainsong in particular his characters seem to lack reflective, inner lives, since Haruf’s treatment of them lacks ambiguity and irony. These are for the most part good, decent, unexceptional family people, citizens of a typical western small town. They live not in the solitude of their own thoughts, at the margins of community, but in one another’s lives. They frequent the Holt Café and they socialize at the Legion on weekend nights; they attend country fairs and rodeos and have a good time; if their town makes Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie seem a cultural mecca by contrast, there is no inhabitant to register such a response; television is much watched, and the Holt Mercury is the newspaper of choice. In both The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged Haruf records the gentle, affectionate banter that passes between people who know one another intimately.

Plainsong is very different in tone and execution from Haruf’s previous work in its unabashed sentimentality and simplicity of vision. Melodramatic confrontations between “good” and “bad” people alternate with scenes of a determined “heartwarming” nature. The plot contrivances of popular fiction here predominate over the exploration of plausible characters. The novelty of Plainsong is its portrayal of the motherly qualities of stock “frontier”-type men, the elderly twin McPheron bachelor-ranchers who come to the aid of a homeless pregnant girl, Victoria Roubideaux. In outline the situation recalls Faulkner’s Light in August, the mock-folksy tale of homeless pregnant Lena Burden entwined with the mordant, tragic tale of the “mulatto” Joe Christmas; but in tone and execution Haruf’s novel more resembles such popular situation comedies as Three Men and a Baby. Comic scenes arise out of situations in which the McPherons shop with Victoria for baby gear, or crudely push their way into an obstetrician’s interior office; after Victoria’s baby is born, there are scenes that might have been illustrated by Norman Rockwell, as when the McPherons enter the maternity ward to see Victoria and the baby and throw into consternation a nurse who scolds them, but

neither the McPheron brothers nor the girl objected to the nurse, because things were all right now; the girl had had the baby satisfactorily after all, and the baby she had delivered was a healthy little clear-eyed girl with her mother’s own black hair, and that was everything anybody in the town of Holt or anywhere else in the world had any right to hope for, and so it was all right.

This is plainsong speech, cloying in its complacency, calculated to make us feel, for a change, good about ourselves and our fellow human beings.

Though there are strongly written passages in Plainsong, especially involving animals (a harrowing description of a heifer giving birth, a harrowing description of the autopsy of a horse), much of the novel is narrated in this faux-naive, primer voice which reads like a parody of minimalism: “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.” Guthrie is one of the novel’s “good” characters, a macho, stoic individual, the father of two young boys whose mother is estranged from the family; though Guthrie is a high school teacher of American history, he seems to have virtually no inner life, still less any significant interest in history or in the life of the mind. Guthrie is resolved not to back down before the threat of a bullying high school athlete (an even more caricatured version of the ultramacho Jack Burdette) and this confrontation becomes a crucial part of Plainsong‘s melodrama. Employing a floating, omniscient narrator instead of the first-person narrators of his previous fiction, Haruf presents his sketchily drawn characters principally from the outside, as actors in scenes. Speech is recorded without quotation marks, in the manner of Cormac McCarthy; but where this technique is fitting for McCarthy’s dreamlike narratives, it’s distracting in a wholly realist work, amid familiar domestic settings, and serves no aesthetic function:

[Guthrie] stood over the table watching them eat. I have to go to school early this morning, he said. I’ll be leaving in a minute.

Aren’t you going to eat breakfast with us? Ike said. He stopped chewing momentarily and looked up.

I can’t this morning. He recrossed the room and set the skillet in the sink and ran water into it.

Guthrie’s wife has retreated to a bedroom of their house, in a state of what seems to be clinical depression; finally she retreats from the house altogether, and from their marriage. Virtually no memory—no emotion—is evidenced by either husband or wife, as if the author had no energy to imagine the pain of a marital breakup, or even an adequate dialogue in which to express it. Wife and husband speak in the most familiar, banal terms:

…I want something more than this. I understand that now. I’ve been submerged and abstracted. I wanted something more from you all these years. I wanted someone who wanted me for what I am. Not his own version of me…. Someone who wanted me, for myself. You don’t.

I used to, he said. I did once.

What happened to it?

Lots of things. It wore out. He shrugged. I didn’t get back what I gave you, what I wanted in return.

The characters of Plainsong with their curiously muffled speech move like somnambulists through the narrative. Like those eerie white mannikins of George Segal they seem virtually faceless, undefined. The villainous are caricatures, like the high school bully who not only assaults Guthrie and harasses his sons but forces his girlfriend to have sex with another boy, and the bully’s mother, whose only speech is repeated profanities. This is a staple of popular fiction as of mass-market fantasy generally, that human beings can be immediately characterized by stock physical appearances or speech, that they can be relied upon not to change. For all their programmed sweetness, the McPheron brothers aren’t half so convincing as the tyrannical Roy Goodnough of The Tie That Binds; they possess the depth of made-for-TV eccentrics.

The least convincing character in Plainsong is Victoria Roubideaux, the mother of the infant, living with twin senex figures on a remote ranch. Haruf makes no serious effort to explore the emotional crisis of a young girl in such a situation; Victoria is a blur, a function of plot.

One of the curiosities of Plainsong is its reversal of the subtextual energies of old comedy, in which sexually aggressive youths outwit and triumph over old men competing for the sexual favors of young women, in a paradigm of nature’s inevitable energies. In Plainsong, the young father of Victoria’s baby is banished by her elderly protectors with very little protest. Young males in the novel tend to be crude bullies while older males are thoughtful, responsible, caring. If Victoria and her newborn baby represent the spoils of a regenerative nature, the older generation has triumphed.

Perhaps Plainsong is best seen as a variant of American pastoral in which the good life is the plainest, most “natural” life; when Victoria slips off to live briefly with her boorish boyfriend in Denver, the city is depicted in the most minimal negative terms. Though presumably set in the present, Plainsong exudes an air of the Fifties and suggests the sort of nostalgic, elegiac pastoral in which a lost Eden is celebrated, traditionally by evoking shepherd youths. Haruf’s novel is a fantasy to confirm our threatened sense of old-fashioned social cohesiveness in the face of destructive contemporary forces: if your cruel boyfriend abandons you pregnant, and your cruel mother kicks you out onto the street, benevolent father figures will materialize to take you in.

The more fundamental appeal of pastoral, however, whether in the rhapsodic surreal mode of Cormac McCarthy or the more restrained mode of Kent Haruf, is, of course, the essential connection between human beings and nature. It’s in these passages, and there are too few of them, that the language of Plainsong truly sings.

They set out in the bright cold day, riding in the pickup, the girl seated in the middle between them with a blanket over her lap…driving north toward Holt, passing through town and beneath the new water tower and carrying on north, the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke.

American writers have always mythologized the West, the frontier, rural life, and “nature.” When Huck Finn declares he’s going to light out for the territory, he means both the territory of land not yet brought into statehood and a region of the unfettered, and usually masculine, soul. It’s instructive to note, though, that where such popular writers as James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Owen Wister wrote romantically of the frontier and lamented its passing, there was an almost equally passionate backlash in the form of anti-pastorals like Hamlin Garland’s Main-Traveled Roads (1891) and Prairie Folks (1893); even Sarah Orne Jewett, in her The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), writes of an enervated New England countryside following the migration of the young and vigorous to cities. Willa Cather’s unsurpassed novels of the Midwest, including The Song of the Lark, mix nostalgia and repugnance for rural or small-town American life. But there’s primarily repugnance in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), in which men and women become “grotesques” through cultural and spiritual isolation in the American heartland.

And then there’s Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920), one of our underrated classics, a dissection of smalltown American life that seems even today uncomfortably contemporary. Hemingway’s few stories set in this country, In Our Time (1925), are as anti-pastoral in theme as in their stark, flat, minimalist prose; they seem to repudiate the “literary” prose of Hemingway’s predecessors and older contemporaries. Our Shakespeare of the pastoral is William Faulkner, in his genius as likely to celebrate as to execrate; now nostalgic for the vanishing past, now demonic in rejecting conventional pastoral sentiment, as in As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932), and notably in The Hamlet (1940), with the long, brilliantly sustained tour de force of “Ike H’mope’s” idyllic, swooning love affair with a neighbor’s cow. As if this liaison between a speechless idiot and a cow, expressed in rhapsodic prose, were the idealized image of literature’s long romance with nature.

In the past decade there has been a resurgence, some might say a recrudescence, of fiction set in the West, and of such meticulously researched, poetically rendered pastoral-historical novels as Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Apart from the quality of these works of fiction, their appeal must have to do with fin-de-siècle anxiety about the imminent century and its vistas shrouded in mist, a longing for the primitive, or the past (which is invariably more primitive than the present) in the midst of our continuous, exhausting technological revolution. As the actual lived lives of most Americans become ever more complex and fractured and, in a sense, more generic and impersonal, we yearn for “authentic” experiences, if only in fantasy. The West still beckons seductively as our region of myth and the testing ground of what remains of the American spirit.

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