Early in the year, after seeing much about it, I read Kent Haruf’s posthumously published Our Souls at Night. I’d never read anything by him before and, in truth, had hardly heard of him. But the apparent simplicity of the premise — a widow and a widower decide to sleep together nightly, without sex, to stave off loneliness — intrigued me. I wondered how he might pull it off, and in well under 200 pages, too; surely there had to be more going on.
What made the book so superb and moving is that it is, indeed, a simple story: the two of them talk, share their pasts, and negotiate a few conflicts in the present, all rendered in prose as clear as mountain spring water. Unlike many flashier novels I’ve read lately, however, in which the busier surfaces cover up shallow sentiments and hollow characterizations, Haruf’s restrained book contains emotional multitudes.
Curious to read more of his work, I checked out Plainsong, the first in a trilogy about the fictional town of Holt, Colo. It was even better: written in the same unadorned style, it effortlessly shuttles among several characters, braiding their stories in a way that doesn’t seem contrived, as it so often can with ensemble narratives. You might assume from the setting that Haruf traffics in Midwestern schmaltz, but any uplift is hard-earned, and his work confronts darkness as much as it does beauty.
The little I’ve learned about Haruf as a person corroborates the humility and wisdom of these two novels. He didn’t publish his first book until he was 41; he constantly deflected attention from himself; he was a devoted teacher; he wrote daily. In a personal essay for Granta called “The Making of a Writer,” published shortly before he died in 2014, he wrote: “I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out.”
Not only his six books, but his modesty and commitment to his craft are worthy of learning from and attempting to emulate, particularly as all of us — even writers of quiet fiction — become increasingly expected to brand ourselves like celebrities. Haruf’s aesthetic and practice were straightforward seeming, his output relatively small, yet his work contains multitudes and will burn steadily past his death.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.