Fly Over Zone Stories
Kent Haruf (copyright Robert Birnbaum)
Kent Haruf tells stories of charming simplicity with characters who cope with real-world problems. Plainsong, his third novel, for which he won great praise and big awards, is his much-loved story set in the fictional town, Holt, Colorado and concentrated on a handful of townspeople trying to work out basic problems of abandonment, teen pregnancy, alcoholism. adultery and such. This group includes two endearing bachelor brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron who end up being the mainstays of Plainsong’s sequel Eventide. The National Book Award nomination for Plainsong observes: “From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace—a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround transport and lift the reader off the ground.”
I talked to Haruf in 2004:*
RB: I think about the novels that are written on the East coast, close to New York City and the ones that are written in the rest of the country— the novels on the East Coast have certain predictable, banal problems. They fall into a type that makes them hard to take seriously. Your characters, and in Jim Harrison‘s True North, these were characters I wanted to know more about and how they resolve their lives. KH: Well that’s an interesting generalization. I don’t know how far you can go with that. There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out. You are not really trying to talk about the human condition, which is what I am after. I am trying to talk about, to write about the kind of universal problems that people have everywhere. And I am not interested in being hip or paying any attention to technology or any of that stuff. None of these characters ever talk about cell phones or computers or any of that.
RB: No brand names appear in these novels. KH: No, there aren’t any. And that’s quite deliberate. So what I am after is something different, and if you care about these characters, then I am pleased. Because I hope that’s going to happen. And that’s how I feel about them. I do care for them. I don’t think I am blind to their foibles or their flaws. I am quite clear about that, but nevertheless I have some sympathy and compassion about them, I think.
RB:… I’m still working with the notions that there is a polarity —the stuff that is written in and around NY and what’s written in the rest of the country. KH: It may well be. I don’t want to think of myself as a regional writer.
RB: The rest of the country isn’t ‘regional.’ [laughs] KH: That’s right. But there is a kind of—maybe this has been so for a long time—I don’t know if you saw the review in the Sunday New York Times by Jonathan Miles—it was a smart-ass review. A quintessential hip cynical eastern view of things. The following Tuesday Kakutani wrote her review, which for her, was a rave. A very positive review. So I figured her review cancelled his out.
RB: Aren’t you review proof, at some point? KH: Well at some point, I guess. I don’t know whether I am or not. RB: I don’t mean personally. KH: They still cut you. RB: I am thinking more of the sales of your books would not be dependendt on such reviews or that they have a marginal effect. KH: I would think so. Besides that if you get away from New York City, away from the small literary pond, who reads those reviews any way? People out where I come from, they don’t read the Sunday book reviews.
RB: I have read that you wrote Eventide and weren’t happy with it and then you rewrote it. What was the form of the original that you found it so totally wrong? KH: I had done what I thought was a finished draft. My method of writing is that I write each sentence endlessly until I get them done, and then move on. So when I get done with the final chapter, I believe I am done with the whole book. And that there is no real compelling reason to go back to it. My wife and I were going to California and I was doing a reading out there or something, and this was back last fall. And I had her read it [the manuscript] aloud on the way out there.
RB: Is she a good reader? KH: She’s good reader [laughs]. And that’s one of the things I thought about. The more she read, the more discouraged and distressed I was with that book.
RB: It must have killed the trip. KH: It did. I hated it. I was in despair about how far I had missed the book. It wasn’t the story line—it had to do with the quality of the prose. And I could have said, “Oh, Cathy is just not a good reader.” But it wasn’t that, clearly. And she and I both recognized it. I did, intensely. So as soon as we got to California, rather than do the things I had intended to do—her kids live out there, and I was going to spend time with them. I didn’t do that. I went into a motel and began to rewrite, right away. I think what had happened was that I had begun to read some things while I was writing and I am usually more careful about that. I had read, in particular, Cormac McCarthy. I admire him, and I think he is probably one of the very best living writers at work in America today. But I was sort of under the influence of his prose. I suppose I made some attempt to write in a more lyrical way. And it wasn’t my writing. I saw that as soon as I heard Cathy read it. And I began to go back and prune and sharpen and clarify what I had done, in terms of each sentence.
Haruf’s last novel Our Souls at Night in 2015 was published a few months after his death in 2014. It’s story of two of Holt Colorado’s elders navigating the solitude of old age and negotiating a thoughful and charming approach to their needs: Addie Moore shows up at Louis Waters’s house and asks if he will sleep (sex not being point) with her. Addie is moved by recognizing her loneliness and inquiring if Louis might also feel that way—Louis surprised asks to think about it…
A.O Scott has opines,
He and Addie are solid, respectable people of a kind who usually show up in movies to be mocked or sentimentalized. The disappointments and satisfactions they have lived through are etched on their faces, which are also the faces of two very famous movie stars — Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Viewers with long memories or heavy TCM habits will recall that 50 years ago they starred as New York newlyweds in “Barefoot in the Park.”In 1979, they reunited, with a touch more denim, in “The Electric Horseman.” The intervening decades have hardly diminished their charm or their skill, and part of the pleasure of this film, directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), lies in the rediscovery of what wonderful actors they can be, and how good they are together.
Our Souls at Night is a bittersweet story and given the age of its protagonists I wonder if anyone under the age of 60 will understand the dynamic at play here. It certainly worked as a novel and its the coupling of two fine actors that hold this iteration together…