In his smooth and solemn Eventide, Kent Haruf returns to Holt, Colo., the bleak little ranching town he memorialized in his crystalline 1999 novel ''Plainsong.'' He's brought back a handful of ''Plainsong'''s central characters and adopted the same stripped-down prose style: Haruf likes to let his characters reveal themselves through gestures and small talk, and rarely describes their thoughts or feelings. But while this strong new novel reads a lot like its predecessor, focusing on the lives of a few loosely connected, deeply lonely people, ''Eventide'' lacks the emotional immediacy and the deep involvement with its characters that made ''Plainsong'' so wistful and lovely.
As ''Eventide'' begins, the elderly McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, are still working their ranch 17 miles outside of Holt. Victoria, the pregnant teenager they brought to live with them in ''Plainsong,'' is now heading off to college with her toddler daughter. The brothers are still getting used to her absence when Harold is killed by a bull. Now completely alone, Raymond begins making hesitant social forays into Holt. At a tavern, he befriends a middle-aged nurse, buys a battery for her car, and believes he's having a romance. Several months later, he returns to the bar and is startled to see her with another man. As he tells Victoria later, ''Maybe I sort of thought I was seeing her but she sure as hell had no idea she was seeing me.''
Raymond can laugh at his romantic escapades, but love almost destroys Mary Wells, one of the new characters Haruf has thrown into the mix. Deserted by her husband, Mary begins an affair with a slippery local banker, Bob Jeter, and when he (predictably) drops her, she begins spending her days drinking gin, smoking, and ignoring her two young daughters. Gin and cigarettes are pretty generic props, and they can convey only generic emotions. This is one instance where the book would have benefited from a bit more stylistic flexibility. Judging by a few spectacularly nasty comments Mary hurls at Bob and an audience of bank employees (''He never was much good in bed anyway'') during their breakup, Mary clearly has quite a bit on her mind. Yet Haruf won't reveal precisely what that might be -- he just shows her slugging more gin. (He wasn't quite this rigid in ''Plainsong,'' which may explain why the earlier book was more vivid and engaging.)
On the other hand, Haruf's cool, arm's-length approach is perfect for conveying the plight of Luther and Betty Wallace. Hapless and possibly retarded, the Wallaces love their two children with a pathetic intensity, but they really can't take care of them. They can barely take care of themselves. In one funny, excruciating, memorable scene, Betty and Luther -- overweight and panting, his shirt riding up over his immense belly -- push a shopping cart from their ramshackle trailer to the grocery store, where they methodically load it with a grotesque heap of frozen burritos and Salisbury steak dinners. Other shoppers look on with contempt, though the Wallaces don't appear to notice as they flirt happily with each other, banter with the cashier, and hand over their food stamps. Delicate, sensitive, and heartbreaking, it's an example of Haruf's storytelling at its best.