I've always said that it's a good sign when you check out a library book that's all beat up. The next stop for Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf should probably be the repair room, if not the bin. I had to handle it very carefully to keep it from disintegrating!
I got this one mainly because it had a grain elevator on the cover, also because it reminded me a wee bit of a Tawni O'Dell novel, where a former football player returns to his small town after being released from prison for beating his wife into a permanent vegetative state. It's pretty different from that book, though.
This one also deals with a small town, out in Colorado. The returning character, Jack Burdette, is clearly an ungovernable sociopath from early childhood. His prowess on the football field masked all of that, and put him into a position of trust, which he thoroughly abused.
It's hard to talk much about this book. I liked it, but there's not a lot IN it. It's like attempting an analysis on a turkey sandwich with mayo. Well, you can tell the ingredients just by looking at the sandwich. Assuming everything's in date, you can also tell how it will likely taste before you bite into it. It doesn't really have any cultural significance, any deeper meaning. It's just a turkey sandwich, delicious and satisfying, that someone made because he or she was hungry.
And the plot of this book simply reads as a story that needed to be told. Because it was interesting. Because the events stayed with everyone that they happened to. Because the story's already being told, in bits and pieces around town, with all the inaccuracies of gossip, and the narrator who was there from start to finish wanted to see it done right. The characters seem real enough, but not strikingly so. They seem real like the characters in the stories your uncle tells at family get-togethers. The backdrop is only as evocative as it needs to be: you see the grain elevator, the cafe, Jack Burdette's hotel room, the newspaper office, and his wife's house, and little else. The action doesn't take place anywhere else, it's superfluous.
But it's a good tale and an interesting read. It's harder than one might think to write a book the same way you'd tell a story, but Haruf has done it marvelously. He keeps to the main subject, he doesn't ramble, he keeps the reader engaged. Secondary characters wander through but the story never runs away with them. They remain secondary, not as interesting as Jack Burdette and what happens when he returns.