Kent Haruf is a nice guy. He's the kind of guy who, if he misses your call for a scheduled interview, calls you right back and apologizes profusely, wanting you to know it was his mistake and nobody else's fault but his own. His voice is slightly gruff, his words are plain and he could quite easily be either Harold or Raymond McPheron, the elderly farm brothers at the heart of his breakout book Plainsong and its successor, Eventide.
While Eventide is set in the same small town that figured so prominently in Plainsong - Holt, Colo. - and features many of the same characters, Haruf is careful not to call it a sequel. Ever the gentleman, however, he won't complain if you do.
"I suppose I'm just splitting hairs," he says. "The word 'sequel' always suggests an attempt to cash in on the success of some earlier book or movie or whatever. And usually, the sequel is almost always never as good as the original. But in my mind, the story of the McPheron brothers is a natural continuation. Theirs was a story I wanted to keep telling."
Plainsong was selected as Spokane's first book for "Spokane Is Reading" - a month-long literary experiment wherein the entire community is encouraged to read the same book and take part in book discussions, lectures and other events all over the city. In addition to its popularity here in the Inland Northwest, Plainsong was also selected for similar honors in Kansas City, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Terre Haute, Ind.; Springfield, Ill.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Loveland, Colo. Although the appeal of Haruf's work would seem to be greater in mid-size cities surrounded by miles of farmland and small rural towns, his intention is "not exclusively rural in its import."
"People have problems everywhere. There's child abuse in my book. One boy is orphaned. There are lonely old men. There's a family that's trying to do the best they can and it just isn't enough," he says. "It serves my purposes to set these stories in a small town because the small town is something I know intimately. But the situations these characters experience are human problems and what they go through is true everywhere."
Eventide takes place right where Plainsong left off. The old McPheron brothers are sending their young ward - single mom Victoria Robideaux - off to college and in the process opening themselves up to an unexpected bout of empty nest syndrome. As one brother gets sick, the other contemplates the strange new life ahead of him. In the meantime, various townspeople struggle with their own hardships against the backdrop of a brutal Colorado winter. Haruf effectively conveys the reality of winter in High Plains, rural America - the physical and emotional isolation, the bitter cold, the endless worry about resources and the overriding daily wonder of "Will we get through?"
As in Plainsong, the language is spare and lyric. There's a laconic poetry to the slow repetition of scenes such as the book's opener: "They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer. They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hog wire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate."
Haruf has a trick for getting to such plainness and it involves writing blind. He wrote much of Plainsong with a wool cap pulled down over his eyes and while he no longer needs the hat, the technique is still one of his writing mainstays.
"I still shut my eyes while I'm writing that first draft," he says. "That's my method of getting the scenes down without getting stopped by all the things that can interfere if you can see your work while you're writing. You know, getting stopped by things like spelling and syntax and so on."
It's not surprising that some of what is so affecting in Eventide is the sense of "late blooming." Haruf himself is 61, and had experienced a ten-year dry spell after the modest success of a book he wrote in the 1980s. In similar fashion, he's enjoying his second marriage to an old friend he re-met at his 30-year high school class reunion. As for the book, suffice it to say that one of the brothers has not completely hung up his courtin' hat.
"I'm getting a little older myself and my wife is the coordinator of Hospice volunteers here, so she works a lot with older people, and I find their issues and concerns really interest me. But also, a lot of it just has to do with the characters. I had already started to take notes for this book while I was finishing Plainsong and I knew what was going to happen with the brothers. They're old men, sure, but they're also very healthy, vigorous old guys."