By Kent Haruf
Alfred A. Knopf; 301 pages; $24

Legend has it that Belle Epoque actress Sarah Bernhardt could captivate an audience merely by reciting from a city directory. In this sense, Kent Haruf is Bernhardt's literary equivalent.

Though his third novel, "Plainsong," is relatively uneventful–a year in the lives of normal folk in the small prairie town of Holt, Colo.–his mesmerizing language draws the reader in, fascinating even with his depictions of the most mundane occurrences.

It's surprising that "Plainsong" is so plotless, given the potentially provocative ingredients that Haruf has carefully included in his mix. The book interweaves several stories and characters: Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager; the brothers McPheron, a pair of gruff but well-meaning old bachelor farmers; and Tom Guthrie, a sensible schoolteacher raising his two boys alone as his unstable wife retreats to her sister's house in Denver. Other minor characters come into play–an elderly, ailing woman on Guthrie's sons' paper route, a menacing high school kid, Victoria's deadbeat boyfriend.

What drives all of this is Haruf's haunting, virtuosic writing. Inimitable, it is both spare and descriptive, as painstaking in capturing vagueness as it is precise detailing the concrete. He abandons quotation marks so that dialogue and narrative run together, and refers to characters mostly by pronouns, which either assumes an intimacy with the reader or is a deliberate choice to be unclear, or both. Haruf gradually rolls out information in swirling run-on sentences, creating an ebb and flow between incisiveness and buoyancy.

Such a style lends the book a compelling blend of vividness and ill omen; there is indeed "something unaccountable pending in the air." Haruf gets up to the edge of something, particularly the physically graphic or emotionally painful, then relents, as if to spare both his characters and his readers. So when he unblinkingly describes the necropsy of a horse, for example, his thoroughness comes across as necessary, not gratuitous. With Haruf there is beauty even in the grotesque, maybe because the harshness is expressed with such clarity:

"She was an old woman in a thin flowered housedress with a long apron covering it. She was humpbacked and required a hearing aid, and her hair was yellow"–not blond–"and pulled back into a knot"–not a bun–"and her bare arms were spotted and freckled and the skin hung in folds above the elbows. On the back of one of her hands was a jagged purple bruise like a birthmark. When she was seated she took up a cigarette that was already lit and sucked on it and expelled smoke toward the ceiling in a gray stream."

Haruf is a master of showing rather than telling, effectively explaining how a character is feeling through what she is not feeling, as when the forlorn Victoria is contrasted with the picture of the woman on the pregnancy test box, "with the look of religious exaltation on her face and the sunshiny garden stretched out behind her," or when she is positioned as an outsider from ordered normalcy: "The girl looked around the clean room. Dishes were set to dry in the draining rack on the counter, and there was an assemblage of white enameled canisters ranged in a neat row under the shining cupboards." The actual word "pregnant" almost never appears.

Haruf's characters' lack of emotional sophistication can grow a bit tedious, though, prompting a fleeting concern that these depictions are condescending rather than empathetic. The echo of Victoria in the McPherons' pregnant heifers lacks subtlety, and the final chapter tying all the various story lines together is, if satisfying, uncharacteristically pat.

Nonetheless, there is complexity beneath Haruf's simplicity. Haruf opens his novel with a definition of his title: "any simple and unadorned melody or air." The term perfectly conveys the essence of this fine book.