(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Like his immensely popular Plainsong (1999), Kent Haruf's fourth novel, Eventide, is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, a rural community so small that people can safely leave their car keys on the front seat. This book revisits some of the same characters found in previous works, most notably the crusty McPheron brothers and teenager Victoria Roubideaux. Ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron are still the comical, tenderhearted old bachelors who took in the pregnant Victoria after her mother locked her out. In the two years since then, Victoria has given birth to her daughter, Katie, has finished high school, and is going off to college. At their farewell breakfast, Raymond feeds Katie on his lap, carefully blowing on her oatmeal to cool it, while Harold pours her milk. These two old men, who from their teens lived alone on their ranch until Victoria joined them, find themselves at loose ends without her and the toddler Katie, on whom they dote.

Eventide also introduces several new characters whose lives intertwine, almost by chance. One is Luther Wallace, who is physically large and mentally slow. Luther obviously wants to be polite and not cause trouble; he often says that everything is fine when, in fact, it is not. However, if he suddenly loses his temper, he can become violent. His wife, Betty, seems unfocused, constantly complaining of undiagnosed stomach pains but unable to recall the name of her medication. Still, she does remember to adjust her skirt modestly. Luther and Betty are childlike, essentially passive, and unable to foresee consequences. They care deeply for each other, even while they fight and make up easily.

Their daughter Joy Rae is eleven; her cramped little room is the only neat place in their cluttered trailer. The sole family member capable of action, Joy Rae is the protector of her younger brother Richie, a first-grader who is constantly bullied by the older boys and overwhelmed even by his too-big shirts. Unlike her parents, Joy Rae is bright; Richie might be, too, but he is still very young.

In the best of all possible worlds, all social workers would be modeled on Rose Tyler, the family caseworker. Incredibly patient, she must extricate Luther and Betty from every predicament. They visit her monthly to pick up their food stamps and complain. Rose helps them to budget their disability checks with the use of carefully labeled envelopes and detailed instructions. Because they are completely ignorant of hygiene and proper nutrition (Pepsi cans, crackers, and pizza litter their trailer), in the grocery store they earnestly discuss what to buy as their frozen food packages begin to drip.

Complicating matters is Hoyt Raines, Betty's uncle, a vicious alcoholic who drifts from job to job. After he loses yet another position and is evicted from his apartment, he invites himself to stay with the reluctant Wallaces, who are powerless to refuse him. Soon, a teacher discovers that Richie and Joy Rae have been terribly beaten, and a subsequent investigation points to Hoyt, who is jailed. Claiming that the children needed discipline, he is released with a warning. Rose insists that he must leave, but the Wallaces refuse to turn him out because he is family. Rose then arranges for Luther and Betty to attend parenting classes to help them face up to Hoyt and protect their children. Already Betty has lost custody of her oldest child and now risks losing the two younger ones.

Haruf is not kind to bullies like Hoyt Raines, but they do not always receive their just deserts. People endure them as a fact of life and fight back when they can. When little Richie is forced into battle with a larger boy, the bully is challenged by Joy Rae's classmate DJ Kephart, who is then attacked by a group of boys that he refuses to identify. Joy Rae bravely names the bullies when DJ will not, even though she has learned it is safer to keep quiet.

DJ is also eleven, a self-sufficient orphan who never knew his father and barely remembers his mother. He is a good student, but he never volunteers in school; he goes straight home after classes because he is the sole caretaker of his elderly grandfather, with whom he lives. In an odd reversal of roles, DJ cooks, buttons his grandfather's shirt, and puts him to bed at night. Whenever the grandfather's railroad pension check comes, DJ leads him to the tavern for his monthly social outing, where the old man can drink a little and play cards with friends while DJ does his homework.

Their neighbor Mary Wells quietly tries to aid the Kepharts with occasional food and small jobs that the boy will accept, but when her...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)