A couple of months ago you may remember that I read — and fell in love with — Kent Haruf's Plainsong, the first in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. I loved the story so much that I raced through it in a matter of days and then felt completely bereft, because I wanted to spend more time with those wonderful characters.
Which is why reading Eventide, the second in the series, was so enjoyable: from the moment I opened the first page it was like being reacquainted with old friends.
Along with the evocative descriptions of rural Colorado — "The blue sandhills in the far distance low on the low horizon, the sky so clear and empty, the air so dry" — there were the lovely old McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, scraping their boots on the porch before going indoors. And there, in the kitchen of their farmhouse, was Victoria Roubideaux, the unmarried mother whom they had taken in two years earlier. Ah, remember me, I wanted to say. I've missed you guys so much.
Old characters and new characters
While Eventide can be read as a stand alone novel, I think it probably helps to have read Plainsong first, if only to understand the touching back story behind Victoria and the McPheron brothers. But aside from a couple of brief references to school teachers Tom Guthrie (and his sons) and Maggie Jones, who had starring roles in the earlier novel, there's a host of new characters in this one.
Betty and Luther Wallace, a married couple living on the breadline, are beautifully depicted. They clearly have "issues" — they cannot keep their trailer clean, are worried that their children may be taken into care, live on food stamps and are "micro-managed" by a kindly and patient social worker — but Haruf never casts judgement. He lets his characters do that instead. "Would you look at that," says a man waiting in a supermarket queue as Betty and Luther load up their purchases. "They're eating better than you and me and they're on foodstamps."
Oh let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?
They're eating a steak dinner and I'm eating beans. That's hurting me.
But would you want to be them?
I'm not saying that.
What are you saying?
I'm not saying that.
Similarly, Karuf depicts the loneliness of 11-year-old DJ Kephart's life so realistically that you want to reach into the novel and give him a hug. His tentative friendship with Dena, a girl struggling to comprehend the fact her father has fled the family home, and the way in which they seek solace in each another's company is tenderly drawn.
That the author can write about this diverse range of characters — from the very young to the very old, whether male or female — and make them seem flesh and blood real shows a very special talent for knowing what makes people tick. That they all share common traits — loneliness, hardship and family troubles, among them — suggests he also knows how ordinary people struggle in their day-to-day lives. But he also knows that we are all capable of extraordinary courage and kindness. His novel is peppered with so many moments of truth that it's hard not to see Eventide as anything other than life-affirming.
I will admit that I read sections of this book with a giant lump in my throat, and yet there is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters' raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone's lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.
I'm conscious that I haven't really outlined the plot of the Eventide. But there's not much to say: each set of characters wrestles with individual difficulties, goes through ups and downs, and comes out the other side slightly more confident than they were when they initially started out. And despite the carefully measured, tightly controlled prose, the narrative is utterly compelling — I read this book in the space of 36 hours and then wished I hadn't been so greedy.
The good news is that I don't have to wait long to visit Holt, Colorado once again — Benediction, the third instalment in the trilogy, will be published in the UK by Picador in April.