A Difficult Story

Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf

Published 1990

In his second novel, Where You Once Belonged, Kent Haruf continues an approach from his first novel, A Tie That Binds.  Specifically we start our reading with a third party narrator who turns the story over to a first-person narrator, Pat Arbuckle,  who tells us the story of the focal character, in this case, Jack Burdett, the best football player Holt, Colorado had ever seen,  and how the narrator’s story intertwines with that of the focal character with increasing intimacy.

In The Tie That Binds, a violent accident is the primary fault line that amplifies a difficult family situation and the abusive nature of a primary character and defines the life course for the focal character.  In Where You Once Belonged, the arrogance, thoughtlessness, and greed of a primary character, rather than a terrible, perhaps preventable, but nonetheless terrific accident, results in tragic outcomes for multiple characters that cared for and or deeply trusted him.   Thus this book takes us towards some themes that Haruf starts in The Tie That Binds and extends in the Plainsong “Triology”—-1) human beings are capable of causing great harm to others and that capability is regularly exhibited, not one that only occasionally arises; 2) human beings can persevere and even thrive in the face of human caused obstacles and can do so with grace, courage, and humility.

I synthesize from several reviews that this book was written before Haruf took up the “write blind” approach used in Plainsong and later books—-typing the first draft on a manual typewriter while wearing a wool cap over his eyes.  Unlike books written blind, Haruf does use standard punctuation in this book, but the engaging sentences were already apparent and thus not fully relliant on punctuation style.

“It [Wanda Jo’s reaction to hearing her long-time boyfriend, Jack Burdett, had married someone else] began immediately.  For the rest of that morning she sat in the telephone office rest room, staring at the tiled floor, wiping her nose on cheap toilet paper, crying quietly, her recently curled strawberry blonde hair fallen forward about her abashed and stricken face and her slim white neck bowed and exposed as if she were waiting for some final blow of some Holt County inquisitor’s ax.  All of that-that dreadful individual remorse and despair and submission-while the fan overhead went on making its maddening little noise and while the other women out in the front office continued to talk about her and to send a representative from among themselves every fifteen minutes or so to check on her.  She stayed in the rest room all that morning.  Then at noon one of the women drove her home.”

The ending is difficult–no happy endings here.   Jack Burdett created a wound in the town that hadn’t healed completely, only scabbed over.  He returned to pick that scab off and ended up ripping it off with ferocity.  Despite this, life will continue for the characters.  All will move forward somehow and at least some with remnants of positive thoughts.  The narrator, Pat Arbuckle, leaves us with  “I want to believe she is all right too…..I want to believe that much and I hope for more.”

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