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The Man Who Lynched His Home Town : WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED <i> by Kent Haruf (Summit: $18.95; 176 pp.) </i>

Kent Haruf’s new novel, set on the Western High Plains, is about a lynching in reverse. A man lynches a town. There are literary precedents: “Coriolanus” or, more lightly, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.”

“Where You Once Belonged” is a taut and deadly version. Jack Burdette pillages his home town of Holt, Colo., not simply robbing it but assailing and degrading its life and its identity. And, as often happens in lynchings, a second evil hides beneath the obvious one--the truth is corrupted. The monstrous act raises the wisp of a question and hopelessly obscures it: Was the victim in fact innocent?

Haruf tells the story of Burdette and Holt in a terse and beautifully wrought narration that is like a series of jump-cuts spanning nearly 40 years. It begins, more or less, in the present, with a scene whose visual mystery sets the tone for the whole book.

Why does a red Cadillac, highly polished but not new, pull up in front of the tavern on Holt’s main street and park there for hours, its driver remaining motionless at the wheel? Why, spotting him, does the owner of the clothing store across the street burst from his door and bolt down to the sheriff’s office?

“He ran on, his arms pumping, a small, dapper middle-aged man in suit and tie,” Haruf writes. The crimson car on the prairie-town street, the man hysterically running through the quiet evening--these are incongruities that jar open the story.

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So is the appearance, in a little while, of the sheriff, Bud Sealy, who exchanges a few laconic phrases with the driver, and suddenly hauls him out of the car. As in a film, we see that the driver is an extremely tall man, fat and bald, in a wrinkled sport shirt. Sealy handcuffs him, then smashes him over the head with his revolver.

It is almost the end of the story. Its incongruous violence, placed here at the start of the book, primes us to follow the retrospective history of Burdette--he is the driver--with real hunger. What has he done to turn the farm community so savage? When we find out, halfway through, we wonder why he has come back. The two mysteries give anguished energy to a book that, never departing from its lively particularity, suggests larger and more disturbing questions.

Pat Arbuckle, the narrator and the editor of the local paper, is both a dispassionate recounter and a chief victim of the devils that are in Burdette. The tension between these two roles is just one of the book’s artfully understated complexities.

Burdette was big and wild from the start. In grammar school, one of his teachers quit rather than finish the year with him. In high school, he was a football star; he did no studying but got by, thanks to his girlfriend, Wanda Jo, who wrote his papers for him. After his father was killed driving through a railroad crossing, Burdette moved into the local hotel, where he held court, presiding over teen-age poker games and beer drinking.

He went briefly to college, played football but was no longer a star, did no studying and was expelled for stealing a radio. After a few years in the Army, he came back to town, got a job at the grain-elevator cooperative and seemed to flourish. He was popular with the men in town--football hero and veteran--did well in his job, and slept once a week with Wanda Jo, who did his laundry and kept hoping he would marry her.

The first break in this apparently placid life came when he was promoted to manage the cooperative. At a convention, he met Jessie, a hostess, married her and brought her home, sending Wanda Jo into a decline. Then one day, a couple of years later, he disappeared, taking with him the cooperative’s entire savings.

To the town’s hard-working farmers, it was worse than a loss; it was as if their world had ended. Charlie Soames, the respectable local accountant, turned out to have been part of the embezzlement; Burdette had double-crossed him by taking off prematurely.

“But wouldn’t you have said he could be trusted?” Charlie demanded of the sheriff when he was arrested. To which Sealy replied: “I don’t know. Probably. But I might have said the same thing about you too, Charlie.”

It is not just the $150,000 that Burdette had taken. It is the town’s belief in itself and in its values. And Arbuckle records a civic bitterness that for a while seemed close to insanity. Jessie, quiet and self-possessed, becomes a scapegoat until--with two splendid gestures whose extravagance itself borders on madness--she brings about a temporary healing. Eventually, she and Arbuckle, whose wife has left him, become lovers.

Years later, Burdette’s return undoes the healing. Even more than his flight, it is a gratuitous act of defiant evil. Though Sealy arrests him, he cannot be held because the statute of limitations has run out. He leaves after making sure the town’s wounds are reopened, and after inflicting one final and terrible wound on Arbuckle and Jessie.

Haruf’s writing has a disciplined economy that sets off its power. Each phrase is spare and straightforward, yet out of all of them together--as with the deceptively plain squares in Braque’s paintings--an extraordinary poetry emerges.

Ultimately, like all evil, Burdette is a mystery. And what is most mysterious is not what separates his evil from the town’s virtue, but what joins them. Haruf does not spell out the link for us; it is part of what resonates in the bitten-off silences of this stirring and remarkable book.


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