Mar 16, 2016

I recently boarded a downtown #1 train at Lincoln Center ahead of meeting my daughter for dinner at a restaurant overlooking the video screen maelstrom of Times Square. Earlier that same afternoon I started to read Plainsong (, the late Kent Haruf’s National Book Award finalist novel set in Eastern Colorado.

The novel had rested on my bookshelf among a stockpile of books accumulated during my MFA studies, and which I only now had time to absorb. I bought Plainsong while assembling my final semester reading list, which consisted mostly of fiction based on dysfunctional families—American style. While researching titles, the familiar Amazon banner heralding “Customers Who Bought This Title Also Bought” popped up with Haruf’s book. Plainsong didn’t fit my reading list, but I was struck by the description of its stoic, windswept characters.

Within a couple weeks after its delivery I read in The New York Times that Kent Haruf had passed away. His obituary was extensive, even by The Times standards, and I felt guilty for not knowing his work, especially since it is mostly set in Colorado, the state I visit most regularly for escape and renewal. Still, the novel sat stacked with nine or ten others until I finally scanned the first line: “Here was this man Tom Guthrie standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was coming up…”

It was past rush hour in New York City, yet the subway cars were still busy when I boarded and stood with a few other riders near the doors. I was inclined to remain standing given I was travelling only three stops, and from this position I couldn’t help but notice a thin, graying black man slumped alone in a corner seat, a metal walker positioned in front of him. The car was crowded but the seats immediately adjacent to him were empty. Quite suddenly he caught the eye of a man standing next to me and barked, “Help me up.” The man reached out and it seemed he needed to bend backward, not so simple in a jostling subway car, in order to gain leverage and pull the older man to his feet. Once standing, he pushed the walker toward the door, looking like he might collapse at any moment. Only then could I and other riders see the tattered disrepair of his clothes, and smell the odor of too many unkempt days. A path widened between passengers to the door and the gentleman who first helped him stayed at the older man’s side ready to grasp his elbow.

The man inched behind his walker off the subway at 50th Street station, a dozen sets of eyes worried the doors might shut before he’d made it free of the car. Then, as the train jerked up to speed, a woman seated across from the older man said to his helper, “You’re a good man.” The gentleman stared back blankly, but she continued, “You didn’t hesitate to help that poor man.” We all exited at 43nd Street and I could see these one-time strangers chatting thoughtfully as they climbed the stairs and disappeared within the station throng.

I read all of Plainsong during the following days and somehow its sublime language and moral clarity kept bringing me back to those few moments on the #1 New York subway. It kept reminding me that there exists simple decency, even if unknowing and reflexive, from the plains of Eastern Colorado to the tunnels underneath Broadway. Now I don’t know if Haruf’s characters are based on actual acquaintances, but in the world of Plainsong they are vivid and real and their hearts struggle truthfully in search of an uneasy fulfillment. It could be argued the novel’s antagonists: the school bully, his parents, the abusive and oblivious teenage boyfriend, are, perhaps, a bit stock, especially given the setting. But I read them more as necessary to drive the plot and set up themes of connectedness, and to highlight the inherently caring folks whose lives may be viewed as simple, yet are no less important and meaningful than those of people far wealthier and more powerful.

Plainsong is often poetic and never boring. In fact, it’s a page-turner, and a novel that may encourage you to pay attention for the subtle moments within our day-to-day lives that illuminate what it means to be human. It is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read during this past year—or any year.


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