If Stephen Dixon's work shows that it is possible to register in fiction the unfolding immediacy of experience without resorting to facile "psychological realism," Kent Haruf's Plainsong demonstrates that fiction can effect a perfectly plausible and convincing rendering of ordinary experience without "getting inside" the heads of its characters at all.
Almost any passage from the novel would do as illustration, since Haruf's approach is remarkably consistent throughout. This is the final paragraph of the first chapter, which is centered on Tom Guthrie, one of the novel's alternating protagonists:
Downstairs, passing through the house, Guthrie could hear the two boys talking in the kitchen, their voices clear, high-pitched, animated again. He stopped for a minute to listen. Something to do with school. Some boy saying this and this too and another one, the boy, saying it wasn't any of that either, because he knew better, on the gravel playground out back of school. He went outside across the porch and across the drvie toward the pickup. A faded red Dodge with a deep dent in the left rear fender. The weather was clear, the day was bright and still early and the air felt fresh and sharp, and Guthrie had a brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it and stood for a moment looking at the silver poplar tree. Then he got into the pickup and cranked it and drove out of the drive onto Railroad Street and headed up the five or six blocks toward Main. Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.
The point of view here is not quite omniscient, since the third-person narration does cleave to Guthrie's limited perspective ("Something to do with," "Some boy saying this and this too"--incomplete information because it is incomplete or unclear to Guthrie), at least until the final sentence, when it leaves Guthrie's vantage point to report on the dust left in his wake. But never does it presume to burrow itself beneath Guthrie's conscious awareness, to take us along as well and oblige us to look back out on the world from the subjective set of perceptions roiling around in his mind. Indeed, most of this paragraph consists of a straightforward, externally-based narration of events: "He stopped for a moment to listen"; "He went out across the porch"; "Then he got into the pickup." We're not invited to share Tom's "brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness," not clued in further to the nature of this feeling; we're simply told that he had it.
The rest of the novel proceeds in this way. The things that Tom Guthrie, his children Ike and Bobby, the pregnant teen Victoria Roubideaux, and others do are related to us, but we do not experience these things through them. They just happen, and the characters deal with what happens to them in the best way they can. By the time we've finished reading Plainsong, we can't really say we "know" its characters in the way we're encouraged to do so in most narratives steeped in psychological realism. These novels pretend to tell us what's essential about their characters, what literally characterizes them at the "deep" level. They're rung through the rhetorical ringer; very little mystery is left. As a result, in the end, they're boring. The characters in Plainsong to an extent remain enigmatic, and they're more convincing as a result.
I didn't really expect to like Plainsong. I thought it would be just another exercise in "local color" a la Richard Russo. But Haruf isn't anything like Russo, at least not in this book. His characters seem authentic because they're presented to us with a stark simplicity we assume must be honest. There's no laboring after "vivid" details and colorful tics, no quaint, picturesque descriptions. It's an intensely realistic novel, but after a now decades-long era in which most "literary fiction" has filtered reality through flimsy psychologizing, workshop-derived wrappings of formula, and a gaudy camouflage of superficial surrealism, it's rather nice to encounter it again.