Wordiness makes novel just plain boring

By Jessica Barkwell

If your one regret of the past summer was not spending enough time observing mundane events in a stereotypical small town, then Kent Haruf’s newest novel, Plainsong, is for you. Set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong follows a group of characters through different daily situations in an attempt to show the complexities and beauty contained within the apparent simplicity of small town life.

The reader is first introduced to Tom Guthrie, a schoolteacher who is the father of two boys aged nine and 10, and husband to a woman who is unable or unwilling to get out of bed. Gradually added to the thus far unoriginal character lineup is a single female schoolteacher (the story’s token love interest), an outcasted pregnant 17-year-old girl (particularly original) and two elderly unmarried brothers who are reminiscent of Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau’s characters in the movie Grumpy Old Men.

Following in the footsteps of his favourite author William Faulkner, Haruf uses his own "little postage stamp of native soil." Son of a Methodist preacher, Haruf moved from one small Colorado town to another while growing up and Plainsong is a novel that attempts to capture the attachment Haruf feels towards small town life. However, Haruf does not share Faulkner’s prudence with the English language. In endeavouring to make the simple appear complex, Haruf uses excessively descriptive diction that causes the reader to tire easily of the novel. Therefore, he fails in any attempt to successfully convey a positive meditation on small town life to the reader.

Upon reading this novel the reader may be able to excuse Haruf’s indulgence in over-describing everything as a necessary step in making his underdeveloped characters and situations appear more complex. This would be the case if it were not for the intrusions of the stereotypical, though not necessarily true or universal, small town prejudices and attitudes that occur.

The first of these attitudes is reflected through the female characters in the novel. All the female characters are underdeveloped and lack an independent identity, each relying on the various male characters for a place in the plot. Further betraying a patriarchal attitude is the constant alliance of the female characters with cattle. Throughout the novel the female humans and female cattle are united, both sharing the experience of being dominated and the purpose of bearing and then caring for offspring.

A second prejudice is betrayed in one of the characteristically over-descriptive passages; "The sink was empty of dishes, the table was scrubbed clean, the kitchen chairs were free of mechanics’ rags and the pieces of machinery they had held the day before, and the floor looked as hard-swept as if an immigrant woman had used her broom on it." Within this short passage the average reader will also be dissuaded from reading further.

The epitaph to Plainsong describes plainsong as "any simple and unadorned melody or air." If Haruf had stuck to his own description, this novel may have succeeded where many other novels have, in the meditation on the contrast between the apparent beauty and simplicity and the actual complexities of small town North American life.