I encountered Plainsong years ago, right after college. I picked it up at the Harvard Bookstore, I think, or maybe it was gifted to me by a Cambridge friend. A housewarming gift, perhaps.
What I remember about that book are plain stories about plain people. Kent Haruf painted the Colorado landscape in a way that made me simultaneously hate and love it. There were no mountains in this Colorado, only scrubbed-out hills and windy expanses of nothingness, cold winter mornings and no central heating. Haruf’s characters see their breath in clouds. They are teachers, farmers, shopkeepers. Two characters are little boys, brothers, who witness teenagers having sex. An old woman teaches those two boys to make cookies. A pregnant teenager, shunned by her classmates, is taken in by a pair of old men, brothers too.
In Haruf’s writing, I saw new possibilities for my own. He wrote about things slowly, with care, giving each of his character’s lives the kind attention it deserves. Any of them, you think as you read, might be any of us.
And so Plainsong is just what the title implies: a plain song, a song for all of our lives, a song that takes the grief and joy of being human and makes it holy.
When I saw Our Souls at Night on the library shelves, I didn’t yet know Haruf had died. It happened six months ago; he was seventy-one. Young. I read the first fifty pages of Our Souls at Night, and had thought to myself, Okay. I reminded myself I shouldn’t have expected Plaingsong, Haruf’s masterpiece. I still have a hard time finding a book I love as much, by Haruf or anyone else.
And then I flipped to the back cover and first looked at the picture: a slightly-wizened man, a working man, stared back. He resembles, I remember thinking, my Aunt Jane. His eyes were crinkly. I read the biography and in the last line I learned that he had died.
For a while I sat in the bed, Our Souls at Night in my hands. I hadn’t known it to be Haruf’s dying book. Outside, the crickets sang a dozen different strains of cricket. I thought of Plainsong, the gift of it, and the relief. Those ordinary, devastated, triumphant lives.
After a few minutes I returned to Our Souls. I read the story anew, the story of an old woman who invites an old man to come and spend the night with her. She is lonely, and she wants someone to sleep with. Not sleep with, but sleep with. A warm body is what she wants.
He agrees. He packs his things in a paper bag—toothbrush, pajamas—and goes to her house. They don’t sleep together, they sleep together, and a companionship forms. A love. It’s not about desire; it’s about companionship. It’s about knowing the end is coming, and wanting someone to be there in the months that come before. A young boy comes into the picture, and it’s like a child for the two of them, and they are good parents. They are natural parents, and they love the natural world, and they teach the little boy this.
In the end, Haruf devastates me another time. The man and the woman must part. The ending is a little hasty, and even enthralled I can see the mark, now, of a dying man. The scenes come together suddenly, the bad news broken hastily, the villain suspiciously familiar.
It doesn’t matter, really. Haruf’s final message is there: his characters must agree to die alone, and the book ends in remorse. The story is a good-bye, to life and to writing.
Let us read Kent Haruf, and let us not forget the lessons he taught, for he has given us the gift of writing plainly. He took ordinary lives and made them extraordinary, and in those lives we also read our own.