Lit Counts: On the Problem of Luther and Betty

By Amanda Rea

Two of my favorite characters in literature also happen to be among its least dynamic. They have none of Anna Karenina’s bright charm, and not even a molecule of Humbert Humbert’s diabolical cunning. And while they’re every bit as disgusting as Ignatius J. Reilly, they have none of his wit or exuberance. They speak in clichés, miss the point, repeat themselves, and become mired in self-pity. They are not the kind of people you’d want to have a beer with. They are not even the kind of people you’d want to encounter in the aisles of Walmart.

But that’s where you might expect to find them. Luther and Betty Wallace exist in Kent Haruf’s novel Eventide just as they exist in life: lumpen, rumpled, burdened by illness and debt, neither job-creators nor job-holders, unpleasant to look upon, wholly inconvenient. But that’s the point.

Here is Haruf’s introduction of the Wallace family home:

Old and dilapidated, [the trailer] had once been bright turquoise but the color had faded to a dirty yellow in the hot sun and the blasting wind. Inside, clothes were piled in the corners and a trash bag of empty pop cans was leaning against the refrigerator. Her husband sat at the kitchen table drinking Pepsi from a large glass filled with ice. Before him on a plate were the leftovers of frozen waffles and fried eggs. He was a big heavy black-haired man in outsized sweatpants. His enormous stomach was exposed below his maroon tee-shirt and his huge arms dangled over the back of his chair. He was sitting back resting after breakfast.

Perhaps you find yourself cringing. The filthy trailer. The fat guy drinking a Pepsi for breakfast. A critic for the New York Times called Luther and Betty “archetypes of poor white poverty, exhumed from the archives of socialist fiction.” But I found them harder to dismiss, perhaps because much of my childhood was spent in a trailer not unlike this (though the trash bag would’ve been filled with beer cans). Like the Wallace family, we relied on food stamps and government cheese, and I remember well the humiliation of the free lunch line. Luckily enough, my parents were capable people for whom welfare was temporary, but there were plenty of Luthers and Bettys in our rural corner of Colorado, people who were categorically not winning at life. Haruf surely encountered some himself while working in a hospital, an orphanage, and a high school.


If Luther and Betty are archetypes, they are not the kind often seen in fiction. When the poor appear, they are usually part of the setting, something to laugh at, or recoil from, a situation for the protagonist to overcome. Who doesn’t love the story of a hardscrabble kid who rises above his meager station? But Luther and Betty aren’t rising anywhere. They are lumbering and childlike, their low IQs rendering them unable to carry out any but the simplest instructions from their deeply patient social worker, who they present with endless squabbles and complaints. They frustrate the reader in a way Haruf intends.

But he doesn’t let us off so easily. Luther and Betty have two young children, and while the hard-hearted reader might blame the couple for their indolence, it’s more difficult to scorn kids, especially as it becomes clear that their parents are incapable of protecting them from a violent uncle.

The Washington Post called Eventide “a kind book in a cruel world.” It is also a political book, in that you can’t read it without asking yourself what a civilized country owes the least of its citizens. Some maintain that we owe them nothing, that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But you can’t read very far into Eventide without seeing that Luther and Betty have no bootstraps. Metaphorically speaking, they don’t even have arms. And yet: they’re human beings. They make jokes, eat raisin bran, and flirt with each other in the grocery store. The book asks without asking: Are we as a society to commit resources to their survival? And if not, what is the alternative? Leading them into the woods in hopes they’ll be eaten by a bear? What about their children, still bright and innocent and full of possibility?

According to Donald Trump, who seems to be on the news a lot lately, welfare is morally offensive, as it robs people of the chance to improve: “Work gives every day a sense of purpose. A job well done provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. I love to work. In fact, I like working so much that I seldom take vacations.”

I wonder if it would surprise Donald Trump that most working people never have the option of vacation. Nor can we borrow $14 million from our dads when our ventures fail. And I wonder how much he’d love to work if it paid minimum wage, or took the form of coal mining, housekeeping, or mopping blood from the floor of a slaughterhouse. Would he feel such pride and purpose? Would he so easily equate work with worth?

Of course, Luther and Betty are an extreme case, and do not represent the majority of America’s poor. But this is part of what makes them so memorable. Their sheer helplessness requires the reader to admit the possibility that all people are not born equal. Haruf illustrates this point in a scene at the grocery store:

The man behind them shook his head at the checkout woman. Would you look at that. They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on food stamps.

Oh, let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?

They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me.

But would you want to be them?

I’m not saying that.

What are you saying?

I’m not saying that.

Eventide is a quiet, unassuming book, but you can’t read it without confronting your ideas about social welfare—just as you can’t read Edward P. Jones’s The Known World or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad without gaining a visceral understanding of the legacy of slavery, or James Welch’s novels without perceiving on a deep level the consequences of Native American genocide. Books allow us a window into the lives, hopes, dreams, and histories of others. They increase empathy, and the complexity of our thoughts. We need them now more than ever.

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Lighthouse instructor Amanda Rea is recipient of a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, the William Peden Prize in Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Freeman’s, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sun, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Glimmer Train, Green Mountains Review, and New South, and have been listed among the distinguished stories in Best American Short Stories.