Feb 19, 2017

Paul's Plainfare

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Remember when we read The Onion Field and every one of Paul's dishes contained onions?  The entire meal came together nicely despite--or maybe because of--the presence of onions in each course.  If we had doubts about Paul's ability to perform the same trick twice, our dinner last Wednesday put them to rest. 

At the appointed hour, we sat down to a meal of meat and potatoes, much like the bill of fare at Haruf's Holt Cafe. But, without benefit of a menu, it took a few moments for us to piece together Paul's clever theme. Following a tapenade that included baby pickles, Paul served us baby back ribs, a side of roast baby potatoes, and a baby greens salad with baby corn and baby carrots. For his piece de resistance, he prepared a dessert of "boiled baby."  (It's a type of pudding; it's boiled in a cloth; and, no, it was far from awful.)

None of us knows what Paul will dream up next, but last Wednesday's dinner was just superb. As we enjoyed each course, the food served to remind us of Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager at the heart of Haruf's novel.

Our Review and Discussion of Plainsong

Published to critical acclaim in 1999, Plainsong put both Kent Haruf and his fictional town of Holt, Colorado on the literary map.  Over the course of a school year, the characters in Haruf's quiet novel confront pain, depression, insult, and tragedy.  They also experience moments of shared joy and discovery.  All of this takes place in a town that feels far removed from the familiar afflictions of modern society.  That feeling of course is illusory:  Victoria's flight to Denver lands her in an environment just as confining as the one she left.

At the start of his book, Haruf helpfully defines "plainsong" as "a simple and unadorned melody"  as well as "unisonous vocal music" chanted by early Christians. As we shared our thoughts about the novel, our comments kept returning to the themes so evident from the title. We all noted the simplicity of Haruf's language and the dialog of his characters.  And several pointed out the clannishness of small town environments. (I'm talking about you, Larry.)  Haruf's spare style won over most of us, but there were detractors.  Peter and Jack both felt that too little was said and, as a result, Haruf's characters were flat and undeveloped.  Roy, who listened to the audio version, found the narration confusing thanks in part to the brevity of Haruf's writing. 

Haruf's biggest fan, Doug, missed dinner but emailed us his comments.  While he enjoyed Haruf's writing (he called it "compassionate" and "elevated"), he was mostly struck by the hard reality forced upon each character and the stoicism each affects.  He also noted the hopefulness that lifts the novel as autumn turns to spring, the McPherons find comfort as surrogate parents, and the birth of Victoria's child approaches.    

Rating Plainsong

As our most reliable barometer of a title's popularity, Tom likened the book's atmosphere to that created by Annie Proulx in Wyoming Stories and said he could have continued reading long after it ended.  Often a contrarian, John "fell into the book on the first page." I felt the same way and was touched by the pain of loneliness that seems to afflict all of Haruf's characters. (This is a theme he explores head-on in his final novel, Our Souls At Night, which Doug encouraged us to read.)  With only a few naysayers depressing the vote, Plainsong received a robust 7.8 rating, with several vowing to read its sequel, Eventide.

Next Up:  The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Dan wasn't able to attend our dinner and instead asked us to select our next book from three titles, every one of them by Bernard Malamud!  His blatant disregard for our selection process did not go unnoticed.  We'll see next month if The Fixer, a novel about the wrongful imprisonment of a Jew in Tsarist Russia, exceeds our low expectations.  (Sorry, Dan, I couldn't resist.)


  1. I should have mentioned that The Onion Field wasn't the only book to inspire Paul's one-note cuisine. Recall that in 2013 I summarized our dinner at Paul's with the following:

    "In recognition of Dashiell Hammett's role in the development of the noir genre (both book and film), Paul's menu went berserk. Starting with a black truffle brie and black olives, then to an entrée of black rice, black beans, and blackened chicken, Paul had us wash it down with sips of Johnnie Walker Black. Dessert, naturally, featured blackberries. Way to go, Paul!"

  2. The summary of Plainsong leaves out the solidification of the more modern extended family that comes together through the narrative. Everyone is looking for something (including the McPherson's even though they do not know it) as the book winds through their lives. In the end they come together to support one another where their families have failed them ( or they have failed their families).

  3. You're right, George. Maybe I left that out of my summary because someone knocked Haruf for bringing everyone together at the end of the story. It was a little pat given that the characters seem to labor alone (hence the loneliness) for so much of the story. But the "it takes a village" sentiment does anchor the characters at the end.

  4. This book was a challenge as the spartan character development left the reader gasping for breath. Why are authors so afraid to develop the character(s) from geographical locations that may pride themselves on being reserved and socially constrained? It can be seen in books written in all countries e.g. the flat lands of northern Scotland and the remote sections of Ireland to the semi arid regions of Western Australia. This book had great potential, but the author missed the mark , at least from my humble opinion.

  5. BTW gents... Geelong59 is my alias for all comments on right wing websites!
    Peter Gebbie

  6. We always knew you were a right wing nut, so it's nice to see it confirmed with your alias unmasked! As for your commentary on the book, you were in a minority of two with your criticism that Haruf's characters weren't fully formed. Now that you've disparaged (all?) other, similar writers who depict the frontier spirit with sparse dialog set against a vivid background, I'll say what you're afraid to admit to yourself: all those folks out there in the arid, underpopulated regions of your birth and adopted countries are in fact flat, boring, undeveloped people!!! That's why they have so little to say! How's that for vindicating Haruf and his style of writing?!

  7. I'm feeling the need to advocate for my book here. I think that the characters are not underdeveloped. They are real people facing real problems, with a facade to protect their emotions which still creep in around the edges. This "plainness" (sorry) is part of what gives these characters real appeal. They aren't some brazen, outrageous, misogynistic, pedophilic character created to startle the reader and sell books. They embody America.

    BTW, the Boiled Baby is a British pudding which you find in books like the Master and Commander series. It was apparently quite popular in the British navy. There is actually a book listing recipes for every dish served in the 21 book series. Maybe that will be our next 21 books!

  8. Right on, Paul! Way to defend an excellent novel from its thoughtless detractors! As for eating dishes prepared aboard Royal Navy ships circa 1800, the very thought makes me queasy. Indeed, there are very few things from the Master and Commander series that I'd enjoy re-enacting. Your suet pudding is a notable exception.... :-)