Feb 19, 2017
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.
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.)