Kent Haruf - Plainsong

September 15, 2004

Kent Haruf.
Plainsong
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Recorded Books Performance by Tom Stechschulte.

This is another book that reads like it wanted to be one of Oprah's picks. There is nothing wrong with that - I finished the book after all - but it is most definitely chick lit despite being written by a guy.

Haruf tells an interwoven story of Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher who is separating from his wife, his two boys, Victoria Rubedoux (spelling - audiobooks you know) a pregnant high school student, and the McFerrin brothers, two old ranchers who are friends of Tom and who take in Victoria to live on their cattle farm.

I liked the book because I did like most of the characters, because I was curious to see what would happen, and because I liked Haruf's little vignettes of rural life. I disliked it for two reasons, one the fault of Haruf and the other the fault of Stechschulte who did the reading.

Haruf jumps and skips across time: each chapter is a brief look at a few hours in the day of one of his focus characters, and we cover most of a year by skipping like a rock over a pond. Towards the end I got quite frustrated because I wanted to see more of the space between rock bounces, and instead Haruf left that space, and the ripples spread by each contact, as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps I have gotten used to non-fiction writing that goes out of its way to spell out why each chapter matters, but I found it frustrating to have to speculate about what happened in and around Haruf's little vignettes.

Stechschulte has a wonderful gravelly bass-baritone. He did a fine job with the laconic Tom Guthrie, with the McFerrin brothers, with the two boys, with Maggie Jones - another teacher and the Fifth Business in the plot - and with scene setting. His other women were all weak, plaintive and passive. And, while Victoria is supposed to be a passive character, he over-emphasized that aspect of her nature. Worse, he used the same voice for Guthrie's estranged and clinically depressed wife. Stechschulte has a similar problem with angry voices. He has one voice for angry, and he used it for the violent high school boy, for the boy's nasty parents, for Victoria's boyfriend when he lost his temper, for a simply testy shopkeeper explaining to Victoria how to do a job, for some minor characters who lose their tempers at various points, in short, every scene that was not flat description or dialogue involving one of the main characters was in just a couple of voices, and the one angry voice Stechschulte uses can not display the varieties and meanings of all the characters who are other than perfectly polite. It distracted me from the book and almost made me halt before finishing - I was listening to the book despite the narrator rather than because of the narrator.

Finally, I discovered that I had to stop the book every time someone got angry, because Haruf has all of his angry characters use potty language. There is nothing wrong with that, people tend to curse when expressing strong emotions, but it meant that if I had the kids with me I had to stop the tape. The toddler is old enough to repeat words, but not old enough to understand the discussion about potty language. I can't insist that the world be made g-rated for my convenience, but just as I lose respect for people who can not express themselves without using potty language, I also have less respect for writers who can only display an angry character by having them speak potty language.

It was an adequate book - good enough that I finished it, not so good that I will be looking for more by the same author.

Posted by Red Ted at September 15, 2004 01:30 PM | TrackBack
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