PLAINSONG

By Kent Haruf

Knopf. 301 pp. $24

Reviewed by Richard Tillinghast

Plainsong, Kent Haruf's third book, tells the interlocking stories of several characters living in and around the small town of Holt on the Colorado plains east of the Rockies. The fictional inhabitants of this farming area live a life light years removed from the ski lifts and multimillion-dollar condos of Vail and Aspen. But it would be condescending to call their lives simple, since the people in this book find themselves faced with complex choices, made more rigorous by the social pressures of the tight community within which they must work out their own solutions.

Tom Guthrie, a high school history teacher, finds himself faced with the task of raising two young sons, Ike and Bobby, singlehandedly after his wife descends into a disabling depression. Ike and Bobby make a tentative move in the direction of restoring human warmth to their lives when they befriend Mrs. Stearns, an old lady living alone in a small apartment in the town. Victoria Roubideaux, a high school girl with a hostile and unsympathetic mother, discovers she is pregnant by a boy she hardly knows. Then there are Harold and Raymond McPheron, two old bachelors who run a cattle ranch by themselves 17 miles outside of Holt. Maggie Jones, a teacher at Guthrie's high school, is the down-to-earth guardian angel with a knack for orchestrating a set of arrangements that, at least provisionally, helps move these people toward answers to their problems -- all of which ultimately revolve around their desperate isolation. Maggie herself is caring for her old father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

Haruf has taken on the challenge of making something out of a way of life about which many readers, particularly on the Eastern or Western seaboard, might wonder whether there was anything to be said. Surprisingly, perhaps, what emerges here is resonant and meaningful. The book is aptly titled -- "any simple and unadorned melody or air" is part of the definition of plainsong that prefaces the story -- because just as surely as the style and subject matter are plain, the novel manages to sing a song of praise in honor of the lives it chronicles.

At the same time Haruf presents life on the Great Plains in all its starkness and even tediousness. Few city-dwellers, faced with the details of how pregnant cows are vetted or how to perform an autopsy on a dead horse to determine the cause of death, would want to change jobs with the McPheron brothers or Tom Guthrie. But Haruf's prose brings an aura of calm and dignity to these stark activities.

Individual words carry great weight in his plain prose style. Note, for example, the force of the word "receive" in the following passage, which comes at the end of an exhausting winter day Tom and his sons have spent helping the McPheron brothers examine and treat the pregnant cows from their herd: "At the highway Guthrie and the two boys turned north and it was quieter in the pickup now because they were on the blacktop, pointed toward town. Guthrie turned the radio on to receive the evening news."

The novel may be fairly criticized for lacking a dramatic plot. A major advancement of the story occurs, for example, when the McPheron brothers drive Victoria to a nearby town to buy a crib for the baby she is expecting. Yet the emotional register of Plainsong, though kept in check by understatement and a stoic approach to the vicissitudes of life, is powerful. And Haruf works a quiet magic in the way he fits his characters' lives in with the landscape and weather that surround them. Here are Victoria and the two old bachelors leaving town with their purchase:

"Together they made a kind of parade. People on the square, shoppers, women and teenage girls and old retired men, watched them pass, turning to stare as the two old men and the pregnant girl went by. Out in the winter air it was colder now and the sun was already starting to lean toward the west, while across the street the granite-block courthouse loomed up gray and solid under its green tiled roof. At the curb they set the boxes in the bed of the pickup and lashed them down with yellow binder twine from the tool box. Then they backed out into the street and drove slowly out of town, riding up out of the South Platte River valley onto the cold winter flatlands of the high plains."

For readers able to respond to Kent Haruf's stripped-down emotional reserve, a scene like this takes on an almost classical dignity -- human beings with their ordinary griefs and troubles superimposed against a stark and difficult landscape. This is a story about people's ability to adapt and redeem themselves, to heal the wounds of isolation by moving, gropingly and imperfectly, toward community.

Richard Tillinghast, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has recently released a poetry & music CD with the jazz/funk group Poignant Plecostomus.