A meditation on morality returns the author to the High Plains of Colorado, with diminishing returns for the reader.
As the cliché has it, Haruf caught lightning in a bottle with his breakthrough novel, Plainsong (2000), an exploration of moral ambiguity in the small community of Holt. With his third novel with a one-word title set in Holt, the narrative succumbs to melodrama and folksy wisdom as it details the death of the owner of the local hardware store, a crusty feller who has seen his own moral rigidity soften over the years, though not enough to accomplish a reconciliation with his estranged son, a boy who was “different” and needed to escape “from this little limited postage stamp view of things. You and this place both.” Or so the dying man, known to all as “Dad” Lewis, imagines his son saying, as the possibility of the son’s impending return before the father’s inevitable death provides a pulse of narrative momentum. Other plotlines intertwine: A minister reassigned from Denver for mysterious reasons has trouble adjusting with his family to small-town Holt; an 8-year-old girl next door, who lost her mother to breast cancer, receives support from a neighboring mother and her adult daughter (single after a scandalous affair); Dad’s own daughter has a boyfriend who isn’t worthy of her. It’s a novel that seems to suggest that it takes a village to raise a dysfunctional family, yet things somehow work themselves out. In a small town, “[n]othing goes on without people noticing,” yet they often miss what the outsider minister poetically observes is “[t]he precious ordinary” of life in the community. Or perhaps life in general. The death of Dad has dignity and gravitas, but too much leading up to it seems like contrived plotline filler. Between one character’s insistence that “[e]verything gets better” and another’s belief that “[a]ll life is moving through some kind of unhappiness,” the novel runs the gamut of homespun philosophizing.
Even the epiphanies seem like reheated leftovers.