The quiet American: discovering Kent Haruf

31 March 2013

Every time I write for the Picador blog I seem to be admitting to gross omissions in my reading. Whilst this makes for embarrassing moments in editorial meetings, it does also herald the promise of truly brilliant reading experiences.

In April 2012 we received Kent Haruf’s latest novel on submission from the USA. I publicly admitted to not having read a word of his work – cue gasps of horror from the Picador team. And well might they gasp. Kent Haruf is the author of Plainsong and Eventide, two books which are talked about at Picador with genuine reverence, and, as news spread that his new novel, Benediction, was in the building, colleague after colleague came forward to express their undying adoration for Kent’s writing, it was astonishing to see how closely people held these books to their hearts.

So I began reading.

PlainsongEventide and Benediction are set in Kent’s fictional landscape of Holt County, Colorado.

Plainsong is the story of several people: Tom Guthrie, struggling to bring up his two young sons alone, school girl Victoria Roubideaux who finds herself pregnant and homeless, and the quiet and gentle Harold and Raymond McPheron who take her in. This is a novel of haunting beauty; the emotion wound into every simple, gentle action is just extraordinary. Kent’s characters are ones I want to chase after, to never let go, in fact the McPheron brothers are probably two of my favourite ever literary creations, so understated in their manner and bearing, painfully true, and wonderfully kind. If there was ever a book to convert the uninitiated to utter author-adoration it is Plainsong.

Eventide follows on almost directly from Plainsong, and again the writing is startlingly beautiful and endlessly moving. In Eventide, Harold and Raymond McPheron are finally waving goodbye to their beloved Victoria as she sets off for college. Meanwhile Betty and Luther Wallace, surely two of the most heart-breaking characters ever written, are struggling to keep their heads above water and their children out of care. All of their stories unfold and entwine until tragedy eventually strikes the McPheron household . . .

Benediction is set several years later and follows Dad Lewis’s long last summer. Old friends pass in and out of his front door to voice their farewells as Dad’s wife and daughter work to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Meanwhile, Kent’s characteristic narrative sweep tells of a little girl who moves in with her grandmother next door to Dad, and downtown another new arrival, the Reverend Rob Lyle faces up to his new congregation. Benediction has an inevitability that the earlier novels don’t and its ending is just devastating. I’ve read it several times now and am always reduced to tears – not just for its sadness but also for the novel’s affirming exploration of the compassion and love of ordinary people.

These books are heart-breaking and breath-taking in equal measure and together they form a masterpiece of American writing. As a new reader of Kent's writing I was completely overcome by the simple brutal power of it. It is Marilyn Robinson’s deeply moving simplicity set in a fictional landscape as vivid and arresting as those of Cormac McCarthy, yet Kent’s writing is utterly distinct, and his alone. I find it hard to round up this blog post, so I’ll do so with some choice words from others who have loved him.

‘Beautifully crafted, alive and quietly magnificent. I read it in one mesmerising sitting. I had no choice; it wouldn't let me go’ Roddy Doyle

‘Wonderful . . . peopled with individuals whose ordinary lives are invested with epic quality and truth.’ Niall Williams, Sunday Times

And a few words from a reader very new to Kent’s writing:

‘A revelation. Extraordinary writing, deeply moving, economical, compassionate’ Rowan Williams 

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