Farewell to One of the Plains Great Writers, Kent Haruf

While I was out of the country one of the great writers of the Great Plains died. His name was Kent Haruf, born February 24, 1943, in Pueblo, Colorado, the author of the celebrated novel Plainsong (2004). It won several awards, but not all that it deserved. Haruf died in his home in Salida, Colorado, at the age of 71.

I was in Rome when I heard the news—from a journalist friend in Telluride, Colorado, a woman from the Great Plains now "imprisoned" in the mountains of western Colorado, if anyone who lives in Telluride could ever have cause to complain. Our friendship is based on the Great Plains, and we discovered right away that we both love Haruf's work. We had actually been making tentative plans to visit him together, to interview him, converging on Salida from Dakota and from Pueblo, Colorado, her true home. I felt helpless to learn of his death in Rome, a place so profoundly opposite to his fictional plains town Holt, Colorado, that they really don't belong in the same sentence. Holt is all dust and Dairy King, a declining backwater where high school sports are the principal town passion, aside from drinking, adultery, and prunish church ladies.

If I had been in North Dakota when I heard the news, I would have thrown a few things in my car and driven in no hurry the back roads to Belle Fourche or Broadus or Lusk, with his books in the back seat, and I would have checked into a shag carpet motel where they still issue you a diamond-shaped green key with your room number on it. I would have ordered a chicken basket at the drive in (oops, "See U in the Sumr") and had a shot in the "Rustler's Bar." That's how Haruf would have wanted to be honored, by a loopy auto pilgrimage through the empty quarter where his characters struggled to pay their bills, pull calves, find mates, make peace with small town bigotries, and wrestle with a God who dwelt partly out of the Old Testament and partly out among the bluffs and coulees and lone cottonwood trees. I'm still going to do this before we settle into spring.

The plot of Plainsong is less interesting than the feel of its portrait of Great Plains life in those towns that continue to exist now only because they once did, towns that somehow hang on beyond the laws of probability even though the quality of life has long since been dimmed and the mating pool is no bigger than a large punchbowl. Plainsong is about a young woman (a girl) named Victoria, whose single mother throws her out when she gets pregnant. Victoria winds up living with two old bachelor farmers, so unbearably single and set in their basic rhythms that they regard Victoria like a fawn they have rescued from the hay rake or a porcelain doll that might break if you look at it cross-eyed. In the end everyone is damaged precisely as they (and we) knew all along they would be, and life goes on in Holt because it's never going to be otherwise on the high plains "where the rain don't come." 

I met Kent Haruf four or five years ago when I was giving a lecture in Salida. There was a reception after my talk, a picnic, and I was being introduced to one eccentric after the next. Then my host, a glorious redhead in a top hat, said, "This is Kent Haruf. He's a writer." When she said Haruf, I nearly sagged to my knees. I had recently read Plainsong and loved it. In fact, when I finally put it down I wondered if it would be possible to locate the author and strike up a correspondence. Haruf's novels are set in a fictional town in eastern Colorado, but they may as well be the actual towns of Limon, La Junta, Trinidad, or Lamar. I lived just on the other side of the Kansas border from all that wild open dry high plains country when I was first married. Haruf absolutely nailed its windswept dilapidation, the sense that every time folks aspire to climb out of the lowest rung of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, trouble and bleary confusion are sure to follow. Haruf is my kind Great Plains writer. We had an hour of conversation together in Salida, and he offered to read my work and help me in any way he could.

Last June I gave the keynote talk at the annual Willa Cather festival at Red Cloud, Nebraska. Turns out I was a sub. The keynote was supposed to be Kent Haruf, but he was not feeling well enough to make the journey. At the conference I met the photographer Peter Brown, who collaborated with Haruf on a magnificent Great Plains coffee table book called West of Last Chance. It contains some of the best Great Plains photographs I have ever seen. They are not all landscapes and they are not all pretty. Brown has an eye for the townscapes that Haruf writes about—real plains Americans standing in front of barber shops and gas stations, junked vehicles next to deteriorating farm to market asphalt roads, home brew restaurant signs, hail bales painted as the American flag, farmers standing gothically next to grain elevators, a man crouching below a giant mural that imperfectly depicts John Wayne. If you are still looking for a great Christmas book for those who love the Great Plains, you can find discounted copies at Amazon.com. West of Last Chance is the Great Plains not as state tourism divisions like to depict us, but the Great Plains as they actually are.

The photos are superb, but it is Kent Haruf's short prose commentaries that I really prize. Here's a bit of one: "We were in Shattuck's Café middle of the morning… it's one of those places where they bring you biscuits and gravy with every breakfast order unless you tell them you don't want any…. I was paying more attention to what the three men at the next table were saying. They had on orange vests, worked for the highway department … and at one point—I can't recall now what had prompted it—one of them said to the other two: 'We may not be the smartest sons of bitches in the world, but we sure can kill weeds.' And I thought to myself: Bud, say no more."

Haruf's long passage on church suppers is one of the greatest short pieces I have ever read. If you email me I will send it to you. I've read it a dozen times now, always out loud, and I burst into tears at a different place every time. I've been in that church basement in five or six locations on the plains, because they are all the same out there everywhere. "And there were a good many church women in the kitchen getting things ready, making coffee and stirring up pitchers of iced tea, and uncovering dishes that people had brought in, and heating things up, and cooling things down, and sticking in serving spoons, and hustling back and forth carrying loaded dishes and platters out to the serving tables… and don't you know when she made something it always tasted as good as it looked."

Haruf's last book Our Souls at Night will be posthumously published in 2015. Meanwhile, I'm re-reading the five previous novels.