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Blog

Words Sufficient to the Moment

Jean Hoefling

"Colorado Cloud Scape" by Heath Alseike is licensed under CC BY 2.0 He wanted to think of words that would make some difference but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing. —Kent Haruf, Eventide

Since award-winning Colorado novelist Kent Haruf died late in 2014, plenty of people have eulogized his memory and the stories he wrote about ordinary people in a nondescript fictional town in eastern Colorado. I didn’t discover Haruf’s books until a few years ago, but worked through most of them in a few weeks, thanks to an e-reader that let me raise the font size as my eyes disintegrated from ridiculous overuse. Day and night I was at it, like a ten year-old with a flashlight devouring just one more chapter of Little Women under the covers.

What kept me reading was Haruf’s unpretentious style. His uncomplicated, laconic narrative passages are well suited to story arcs that are as subtle as the rise and fall of the American prairie where those stories take place, where artless pragmatism rules and stillness is at a surplus. A Denver native, I love that “other Colorado” out east, where the sky dominates and the horizon is uncluttered and people sit in small-town cafes on Main Street. There’s “not much to see” out there, nothing fancy happening, and that’s what makes it lovely, like the simple satisfaction of having everything crossed off your to-do list. Haruf’s writing is like that land:

Often in the morning they rode out along the tracks . . .where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become. [Plainsong]

Someone has described Haruf’s novels as pleasantly underwhelming. To write about underwhelming places and people is the author’s genius. He’s created a world as prosaic as our own, yet in his stories Everyman is as interesting as any Jason Bourne type could be. And the words he drapes his stories over are utterly sufficient to the moment, reminding us life doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be satisfying.