Reading: Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf

Where You Once Belonged
Author: Kent Haruf
Type: Fiction
Finished: March 7, 2019
Rating: ★★★★

(Image from Amazon)

Although I read them out of order, I have now read all six of Kent Haruf’s novels about the fictional town of Holt, Colorado east of the Rockies. As the story opens, the town discovers that Jack Burdette has returned. Haruf’s beautiful prose perfectly captures him almost a decade after he left town.

“But Burdette looked bad now. In the eight years since Bird or any one of us had seen him he’d changed for the worse. He was fat now, obese; he was sloppy and excessive; his head had grown bald and the flesh hung on him like suet. ‘It was like’, Bird would say later, ‘like for eight years he’d be feeding on cream pie and pork steak and lately he hadn’t fed at all.’” [p 12]

The story is narrated by Pat Arbuckle who now owns the local newspaper. Arbuckle jumps back in time when they were kids and brings us up to date and why his return to small town Holt is such a surprise.  He was never a good student.

“Thus for eight years he was passed from one grade to the next, from one old local spinster or balding man to the next one, passing, being promoted each spring not so much by his own efforts with books and maps and pencils as by the absolute refusal of our teachers to have anything more to do with him.” [p 24]

Burdette grew up taking advantage of whomever he could without a second thought.

“For we had all begun to expect the unusual of him by that time, while, he, for his part, had already learned – if acting on bent and sheer heedless volition can be said to be a form of learning – not to disappoint the expectations of anyone. Least of all his own.” [p 40]

Because he was a star athlete he got away with it and received preferential treatment as he reached adulthood. That “sheer heedless volition” propels the action and explains why he left town.

This, Haruf’s second novel is more plot driven than his final novel Our Souls at Night. Through the action we learn as much about the narrator’s life as we do as the subject of the story. And we get another viewpoint into small town life out in the west.

Haruf creates rich, beautiful characters. Professional reviews of his novels exalt Haruf more than I can; the only thing I need to add is “read his novels!”  I suggest starting with Plainsong, then Eventide. Those two novels are among the best I’ve ever read. The older bachelor brothers in those two novels are so beautifully rendered they have stayed  in my mind for years. The Ties That Bind and this novel are also excellent.

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