EVENTIDE *

By Kent Haruf. Knopf. 300 pp. $24.95

In his new novel, Eventide, Kent Haruf picks up the story a year after the conclusion of his popular 1999 novel, Plainsong. The McPheron brothers, two gruff plainspoken bachelors, are eating breakfast in the kitchen of their ranch with Victoria Roubideaux, the girl they took in -- she was 17 and pregnant -- at the urging of the well-meaning folk of Holt, Colo. Her child, Katie, now 1, fusses in her high chair and is persuaded to eat only when taken into the rough paws of Harold McPheron. There is talk of Victoria and Katie's imminent departure for Fort Collins and college, of not wanting to leave home or be left at home. It is a mournful, tenderly rendered scene of leave-taking.

And so the McPheron brothers, no longer as incurious in their isolation as they once were, return to the rhythms of ranching, with a different set of seasons on their minds: Thanksgiving visits and Christmas vacations. Haruf details this life beautifully, and anyone who wants to know what really goes on in cattle country besides celebrity mini-ranch fantasies need look no further. When tragedy strikes the McPherons, it comes directly out of the risks faced by men who spend their lives around dangerous hardware and recalcitrant beasts.

In the town of Holt, meanwhile, other, more urban plights are on stage. We see the mentally challenged Luther and Betty Wallace trying their best to raise their children, Richie and Joy Rae; a recently abandoned wife, Mary Wells, struggling to keep her attention focused on her two children, Dena and Emma; 11-year-old orphan DJ Kephart cooking and caring for the only family he's got, his grandfather, Walter. Off in the wings are a selection of deadbeat dads and murderous uncles. Just slightly above the scene, watching and fretting over these threatened lives, sit the godmothers and godfathers of Holt, Plainsong holdovers Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones and, playing a new part, social worker Rose Tyler.

This is a good if somewhat familiar cast. Haruf brings them and the toil of their days to life with clarity and precise, lyric prose, and he has a good number of plot turns and all too real challenges in store for them. Holt is no paradise, but Haruf's care is upon each and every one of his characters, and, in the end, most futures seem brighter than they were at the beginning. Like Plainsong, Eventide is a kind book in a cruel world. As much as simple neighborliness and small-town values can do, they do. What they can't accomplish is not for lack of trying.

It would be churlish in the extreme to object to much of this, and I hope as many people who loved Plainsong flock to the stores for the new installment. But they may be a little disappointed. Plainsong was a novel built boldly around an improbability, that these two reclusive old coots and the confused runaway would come together as family. The unlikelihood of its happy conclusion gave the narrative its strength and was the source of its emotional payoff. Goodness can prevail, sometimes. But with each new improbability served up in Eventide, alas, the odds get longer and longer, and the conclusion starts to seem manufactured for maximum appeal. The unhappy endings for some of the minor characters seem inserted to defend the book against the charge that its vision is simplistic. Throughout the last third of the book one can, as Anthony Trollope warned, "smell the oil" of the narrative machinery.

A good part of this problem is the inevitable challenge of a sequel that follows so quickly on the first installment. The difficulty arises out of more than just a straight comparison reading of both books end-to-end; Eventide, standing on its own, feels a little tired, maybe even a little bored. It's like a preacher sermonizing on the same text on consecutive Sundays. If one thinks of the contemporary sequels that have been most successful -- Updike's Rabbit books come first to my mind -- one hallmark seems to be the length of time between them, which allows the author and the characters to bring fresh thinking to the project. Updike needed 10 years between each book to do this.

Still, this complaint should not stand in the way of success for this book. There's nothing wrong with happy endings, nothing false about mercy. The town and townspeople of Holt are in safe hands with Haruf, and these days we might all do well to look past a little narrative legerdemain in favor of honest impulses, real people and the occasional workings of grace. *

Christopher Tilghman's new novel, "Roads of the Heart," will be published in July.