Jenny Shank's Reviews > Eventide

Eventide by Kent Haruf
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Jan 03, 2011

really liked it

Kent Haruf returns to small-town Colorado with another pitch-perfect novel
Jenny Shank, Special to the News
Published May 7, 2004 at midnight

In Kent Haruf's new novel, Eventide, set in the fictional town of Holt, Colo., on the eastern plains, Raymond McPheron, an elderly cattle rancher who has recently begun to court women, invites social worker Rose Tyler out to dinner. They're made to wait for a table at the restaurant. He grumbles, and Rose asks if he'd rather leave.

"I wouldn't be no other place right now, Raymond said. It's just kind of late to be eating supper, that's all I mean. He looked at his watch. It's getting awful close to seven-thirty."

Rose observes, "You wouldn't do well in New York or Paris, would you?" and Raymond replies, "I wouldn't even do very good in Fort Morgan."

Through precise depictions and faultless dialogue such as this (which Haruf doesn't offset with quotation marks, lending a stripped-down air to the novel), Haruf captivated readers who had never set foot in Colorado, and plenty who had, with his 1999 novel Plainsong. The book won him well-deserved acclaim, including a National Book Award nomination, and brought him the large readership that had eluded him with his first two novels.

In prose whose stark beauty evoked that of the high plains, Plainsong told the story of a teacher whose wife has a breakdown and leaves him to care for their two boys, and of a pregnant teen-ager, Victoria Roubideaux, who has nowhere to live until the elderly McPheron brothers, ranchers on the outskirts of town, agree to shelter her.

Most of all, Plainsong brought to life the town of Holt, a community small enough that everyone's lives are interconnected. With Eventide, Haruf has once again demonstrated that he can push a tale featuring our Western landscape beyond romanticized cowboy myth into distilled reality. The characters in Plainsong, particularly the McPheron brothers, were not easy to forget, so admirers of that book will be glad to learn that their story is taken up again in Eventide.

When we last saw Harold and Raymond McPheron, at the close of Plainsong, they'd seen Victoria Roubideaux through the birth of her daughter, and she in turn had coaxed the reticent brothers into talking more, and feeling more emotion than they had since the day "when they were teenage boys and they'd learned that their parents had been killed in the Chevrolet truck out on the oiled road east of Phillips."

Eventide begins two years after Plainsong ends, when Victoria is about to move with her child to Fort Collins to attend college at Colorado State University. Though the McPherons scarcely express it, Victoria's absence will leave a great void in their home. Even more acute loneliness than this, however, is in store for Raymond over the course of Eventide.

Meanwhile, Haruf introduces the Wallace family, Holt's down-and-outs, living in a filthy trailer. Neither Betty Wallace, "a large woman not yet forty, with a pockmarked face and limp brown hair," nor her husband, Luther, is employed. Luther is repellant in appearance and manner, "a big heavy black-haired man in outsized sweatpants," whose "enormous stomach was exposed below his maroon tee-shirt."

The Wallace family visits social worker Rose to collect their food stamps, and she instructs them in how to better manage their lives and take care of their two children. The Wallaces could have easily become a caricature in less sensitive hands, but Haruf's honest portrayal allows them to attain a particularity that can't but evoke their humanity.

The other people in the town treat them as outcasts, as in this instance when they're at the grocery store and encounter a woman who's blocking the aisle:

"That's fine, missus, Luther said. I can make it okay. He squeezed his cart through, and Betty turned sideways, shuffling by. The woman stared after them until they had disappeared around the end and then stood fanning the air in front of her face."

Haruf's apt rendering of the Wallaces' dialogue provides a glimpse into their minds: "Luther pulled a magazine from the rack in front of them and looked at pictures of half-naked women in the glossy pages. Who you looking at? Betty said. You better keep your eyes saved for me."

The pathetic Wallaces, unequipped to handle the basic demands of living, are nevertheless devoted to their children. They're weak-willed, however, so when Betty's drunk and abusive uncle Hoyt demands they let him stay in the trailer, they're unable to refuse him. Raging Hoyt soon becomes the spark that ignites Holt's game of two-degrees-of-separation.

A third set of Holt folk complete the trio whose stories will eventually mesh. D.J. Kephart is another youngster stricken with Holt's apparent epidemic of parental demise and abandonment:

"He was active and responsible, and too serious for a boy of eleven. Before he was born his mother decided not to marry the man who was his father, and when he was five she died in a car wreck in Brush Colorado on a Saturday night after she'd been out dancing with a redheaded man in a highway tavern."

D.J. has lived with and cared for his grandfather since then, preparing food for them both and performing chores around the house. His neighbor, Mary Wells, pays D.J. to do garden work and treats him with kindness until her husband's refusal to return from Alaska so unmoors her that her daughters, too, begin to lean on D.J.

Eventide is ultimately a story about the way the sick, mentally weak and vulnerable in this small community depend on those whose psychological and physical fortitude enables them to meet every situation with a clear head and do the job that must be done.

More often than not, it's the young people of this town who are called on to make the dinner, clean the house and otherwise cope with the wreckage of the adults' lives. Just as it did in Plainsong, the town of Holt becomes real enough to step into in Eventide, and on good days, the balance of its residents' decency outweighs that of their cussedness.

By capturing the cadence of his characters' voices, the sounds of a livestock auction, the sights of a small-town bar and the smells of the prairie, Haruf has conjured Holt entire and proved that there is no one who writes better fiction set in Colorado today.

Jenny Shank's short stories have appeared in CutBank and Michigan Quarterly Review, and one was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the Denver entertainment editor for The Onion.

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