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May 17, 2004

It doesn’t always happen, but if you’re lucky, it does: You’re in a museum looking at paintings, and on and on you go, one after another, until suddenly your flagging attention is captured.

It’s not that the others weren’t accomplished works of art, but something has engaged you — something excellent or new or, often enough, inexplicably appealing.

This probably happens more often outside a museum. You might walk into a beautifully designed home or notice an exquisite tree in the forest.

If you’re a reader, it certainly happens with books. Kent Haruf’s new novel, “Eventide,” struck me this way.

I was pleased to find the curtain open on the McPheron brothers. Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away. If you don’t know it’s them in the first sentence, you’ll know in the second.

The McPheron brothers are beloved characters from Kent’s very popular novel, “Plainsong.” So, the novel begins in this comfortable Plainsong way, but soon you’ll find it’s something different.

You’re still in Holt, Colorado, with characters you know, plus new ones. But a remarkably compelling narrative hooks you so carefully you don’t even notice until the first time someone tries to pull you away.

It is not typical narration. Much of the story is revealed in dialogue seamlessly woven with narrative prose. You won’t see a quotation mark, and you won’t miss one. This has been done before, of course, and by Kent himself, but rarely with such perfection.

The reading is effortless but the story is not — it is quietly, deceptively, stirring. I paused only to reflect on the skill behind a page I’d just read. The book does not invite this, necessarily; that’s a personal pleasure of mine. In fact, the writing is so clean and spare, you won’t find the author in it. The skill is deep in the story, not spread over it.

I remembered something Kent had said a couple of years ago after a reading. He answered a question about dialogue and commented that dialogue slows the story down. Well, you wouldn’t know it reading “Eventide.”

Reviews of the book have been praiseworthy, I hear, but I’ve avoided them because I didn’t want to spoil my own reading. Kent was disappointed that several reviews revealed parts of the story that are better left to readers to discover. I’ve always thought this practice a disservice to readers.

So, I’m not saying another word here. Except to say that “Eventide” is excellent and shouldn’t be missed.

What makes a book excellent is as unique to the work and the reader as it is with a painting and its audience. A book may be widely praised for its suspense, or point of view, or breadth, or depth, regardless of a clumsy style.

But when a book provides the story or information you want and is well-written, too — this is a joy. Fine writing is distinguished by clarity. It is welcome in a novel but also, or especially, in writing that purports to instruct.

A friend who delights in finding such writing lent me a book as an example of excellence: It is about federal income taxation, written for law students.

If this seems improbable, at least know that it’s not impossible. I would pick up the book and stop randomly on a page, like a good biblical diviner, and always find a fine example.

For “Eventide,” though, I recommend starting at the beginning and reading each carefully chosen word in order.


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