On the Death of Kent Haruf: One of Our Finest Novelists, and a Friend

So on this snowy morning it’s a sad day to hear of the passing of Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong (1999), Eventide (2004), and Benediction (2013), among others. (For more details, see a piece in the Washington Posthere.) Although I didn’t know him well, I’m glad to be able to say I had met him a few times, and was friends with Kent. I brought him to campus for a writerly visit once, and we struck up a casual friendship then. He was kind and thoughtful with the students, though he also told me he was glad to be retired from teaching. I remember when he read to a full lecture hall of students he skipped using the lectern, and just walked around and was friendly with people. Some terrorist events were in the press at the time and he went out of his way to mention how he’d done a stint in the Peace Corps years ago, in Turkey, in a small Muslim village, and how kind and respectful he had found their culture to be.
I first learned of Kent’s fiction when Fritz Lanham, the great former book editor at the Houston Chronicle, assigned me the novel Plainsong to review. It’s a beautiful book and I’ve since read all of his. As is mentioned in the article about his death, it appears that we will have one more novel to add to his impressive body of work, to be published next summer apparently, Our Souls at Night. That’s a fine send-off for a great man. We met a couple times for lunch at a coffee shop in Salida, Colorado, near which he had a home in the mountains—as I do, too. He told me about being shocked to discover a hunter had shot a deer not far from his mountainside property, and how even the local game warden was incensed that anyone would hunt so close to other people’s homes. One of the finest moments I remember in his fiction occurs in Eventide, describing some down-and-out characters at the local supermarket in his fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, which was based on towns in northeast Colorado where Haruf had taught high school and had family. In the scene the people using food stamps to buy their groceries are aware of the judgmental looks from the other people in line, and there’s a subtlety and nuance in the depiction of the moment that only the highest literary art can achieve. His work isn’t loud and histrionic, like a Gone Girl type of thing, but is elegiac, insightful, and noted for a loveliness in austerity. That doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble: The Ties That Bind ends with the local ne’er do well essentially “winning,” and the good man being tied up in his home at the end of the book. He always had a surprise up his sleeve, and I would bet he can show us some new wrinkle of understanding and beauty in this last book.
Kent was one of our great 21st century Western writers, a voice who elevated the plains of eastern Colorado, a place he described this way: “It’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful.”

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