Where You Once Belonged – Kent Haruf (1990) 187 pages
I adore Kent Haruf. Our Souls at Night is one of my all time favourite novels (novellas). And yet Where You Once Belonged didn’t quite hit the spot for me. I can’t decide if its because it didn’t work or if its because I didn’t want it to have the ending it had, however believable. I’m writing this a few weeks after reading it and I deliberately left it a while, thinking I’d know by now, but I don’t.
Anyway, Haruf is a wonderful writer and you should definitely read Where You Once Belonged, and everything else he’s written too 😊
Set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado where Haruf sets all his work, Where You Once Belonged tells the story of Jack Burdette from the point of view of one of his school friends.
The story opens with Burdette returning to Holt as a prodigal son, the charismatic chancer who ripped everybody off and fled. There’s a wonderfully understated comic scene in which the Deputy Sheriff is alerted to Burdette’s whereabouts:
“Willard allowed his feet to droop from the desktop and slowly he sat up in the chair. He leaned forward and began to brush the fingernail clippings from his shirtfront onto the green blotter on the desk. He was making a neat pile. ‘Something bothering you, Ralph? You sound a little excited.’
‘What?’ Bird said.
He was standing behind the office counter, panting and sweating, his face red as beets and his eyes looking as though they belonged in the head of an alarmed poodle.”
This is a brilliant way to set up the drama of Jack Burdette. Holt is a small town, what does the reader care what happened there? But in this way Haruf sucks us right in to the drama of Burdette’s story.
Jack Burdette is a legend in the town. A huge, macho, charismatic man who excelled at football and it getting everyone else to make his life as easy as possible.
“He was taller and stronger – taller and stronger than anybody else in the school. By the time we graduated the spring of 1960 he was six feet four and weighed two hundred and forty pounds… He was like a full-grown man among mere children, a colossus amongst pygmies… He was a kind of high-school boy’s high school boy: the supreme example of what was possible and absolute.”
He only graduates because Wanda, the woman who loves him – who he uses mercilessly – writes his school papers for him. When he leaves school he works at the farmers co-op, gets quickly promoted, and remains a big fish in a small pond.
These types are always hard to create in fiction, as its hard to get the reader to buy into the charisma of the character, as so much charisma relies on the face-to-face energy of a person. But with Burdette we know things went badly wrong from the start of the story and that he is back looking bloated and jaundiced, so we are not expected to ever buy into him.
Yet his friend, Pat Arbuckle, who runs the local paper and therefore believably wants to document all that occurs in Holt, shows how people enjoyed Burdette, without really ever knowing him.
“For we had all begun to expect the unusual of him by that time, while he, for his part, had already learned – if acting on bent and sheer heedless volition can be said to be a form of learning – not to disappoint the expectations of anyone. Least of all his own.”
Where You Once Belonged is an effective portrayal of small town life and how local legends grow up. Burdette remains unknowable, and in this way the reader is positioned in the same way as most of the town.
“the center of that constant and admiring group of backslapping men, while he told his jokes and stories and they all laughed.”
Yet unlike the townspeople, we realise that Burdette is probably sociopathic. He causes deep, tragic hurt to more than one person and appears to care for precisely no-one. When he arrives back in Holt, the inhabitants are angry, but the reader – certainly this one – is scared as to how it will play out. Burdette is unpredictable, and he is cruel, whether intentionally or through utter disregard for other people…
As I said at the start, I didn’t like the ending of this, but I think that’s my sentimentality rather than Haruf’s misjudgement 😉 As always with Haruf, the town and its people are closely, compassionately observed and completely believable.
The writing was precise and beautiful. I only wish he’d written more.