This past Christmas, I cleaned the LoDo Tattered Cover out of every last paperback copy of Plainsong, Kent Haruf's lyrical novel about life, loss and love on the Eastern plains in the fictional town of Holt. This wasn't simply some lame attempt to confine all of my holiday shopping to one stop (although Tattered does offer a 20 percent discount when you buy five or more copies of the same book -- a deal geared to book clubs, I'm guessing, but also handy for unimaginative gift givers). I was betting that Plainsong would be chosen as the focus of this city's first "One Book, One Denver" project, and thought I'd give friends a head start by stuffing their stockings.
But despite the fact that Haruf was not only living -- one of the requirements for the author of the winning book, which ruled out Mark Twain's Roughing It, another tome I was pushing -- but living in Colorado, Plainsong didn't make the cut.
Too risqué, was the official word. Instead, the city went for Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, another lyrical novel, this one with absolutely no Colorado connections -- but no pregnant, unwed teenager, either.
As if Denver hasn't seen those before.
Kansas City found Haruf's 1999 novel sufficiently pasteurized to select it for that city's one-book readathon. And even Hallmark, which is based in Kansas City, chose Plainsong for a Hallmark Hall of Fame production that aired last month. The TV movie was a slightly sanitized version of Plainsong (and filmed in Utah rather than Colorado), but a decent primer on the book -- and good preparation for what follows this month.
Years after Plainsong's release, Haruf has returned with Eventide, heading directly to "old men approaching an old house at the end of summer": the McPheron brothers, longtime bachelors who'd taken in that pregnant teenager. But now Victoria has gone off to college in Fort Collins, taking her young daughter with her, and Eventide moves the McPherons and other residents of Holt into a darker chapter. Haruf took the title of the book, less a sequel than a deepening of the themes he explored in Plainsong, from the words of an old hymn: "Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide."
Haruf was raised in a town on the high plains very much like Holt; then he taught for thirty years -- some in the Peace Corps, the last ten at Southern Illinois University -- before the success of Plainsong, his third novel, allowed him to retire and write full time. He moved to a home just outside of Salida, a small town that may be hipper than Holt but is no stranger to big issues.
Colorado has recognizable schools of art, peopled by painters and sculptors who've captured our landscape over the last century and a half, but the most famous fiction set in this state has been done on a drive-by basis. Jack Kerouac passed through for On the Road; James Michener set up shop temporarily for Centennial. While Montana has Ivan Doig and a host of writers who capture Big Sky Country, and New Mexico's bookstores boast shelves of everyone from John Nichols to Tony Hillerman, Colorado has Kent Haruf.
You wouldn't do well in New York or Paris, would you? asks the social worker Raymond McPheron takes out to dinner in Eventide.
I wouldn't even do very good in Fort Morgan, he responds.
But Raymond and all the rest of the characters in Haruf's novels would do just fine in Denver. Collect them all, before the city picks its next book.