A certain tradition of writing, fathered by the gritty, unblinking Western fiction of authors like Louis L'Amour, has been softened by modern civilization to focus on the emotional currents rolling not far beneath the tough skin of the West. The spartan, masculine landscapes and characters of country ways are still around, but it seems as if L'Amour's style has been feminized a touch to yield the tough-but-tender storytelling of authors like Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Bass, David Quammen and Larry McMurtry.
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale professor Kent Haruf entered this tradition to applause for his acclaimed novels The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged, but he really got attention with 1999's Plainsong.
The novel is composed of two separate lines of plot that transpire in the same small Colorado town. Both stories are limned in a spare, simple style that's easy to read but by no means simplistic.
One track concerns a pregnant high-schooler who gets kicked out of her house. With nowhere to turn, a mutual friend convinces two elderly brothers, bachelor farmers who know a lot more about cattle than women or babies, to take her in. Her stay affects the three of them profoundly.
The other story introduces us to a family comprising a teacher separated from his wife and the two young boys he's trying to raise. Dad gradually adjusts to his fresh wound and begins to look to other women, but his real problems involve a dangerous malcontent in his class at the high school and the struggle to guide his sons through a series of disturbing events.
Haruf is a fine writer who can do at least two things very well -- make you feel the intense emotions that his characters feel and tell a good story.