Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
by Robert A. Parker
This 2015 work is a beautiful novel, a surprising novel, a tender novel. It is the most unusual love story I have read in a long, long time. It is about a couple in their seventies, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, neighbors whose spouses have died long ago, and who are now lonely. Especially at night.
Without any prelude, on page one, Addie walks over to Louis’ house and proposes that they sleep together. Every night. And just talk. Perhaps also hold hands. But no sex. She just wants the warmth of another person at night. She misses it. And Louis is flummoxed. Indeed, the reader is caught off guard as well. It is such an unusual beginning to such an unusual novel. Indeed, any novel.
The author died at age 71, shortly after completing this novel, and one wonders if it was not his own age and his own emotional life at that time that prompted him to consider looking into just such a situation. At that age, as one’s friends drift away, and frequently die, a sense of loneliness does enter one’s life. One may or may not consider it foolhardy for Haruf to conceive of such a proposal. And for Louis to consider it. But one has to be grateful that the author did explore it.
The story works because Addie and Louis are both very good people and very considerate of the feelings of both each other and their families. Which enables one easily to identify with them. Louis admits to Addie initially that he does not know how to react to her proposal. Which helps to make the situation work, as it draws the reader into the unusualness and seriousness of her proposal. But he accepts, because he recognizes the same need, the same loneliness, within himself. The title clearly refers to a relationship that is at the level of their souls rather than of their bodies, even as it satisfies the emotional needs of their bodies.
We also identify with this couple because both are making a last attempt at happiness in their lives, lives that have not been marked by family accord, and both believe that they should strive for such happiness. “I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think,” Addie also says. “I’ve done that too long — all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.” And as we get to know them, we readers also feel they deserve the happiness they seek.
They begin slowly, sporadically, until they become comfortable with each other; and then they persuade themselves that what they are doing is natural, is normal, and is nothing that needs to be hidden from their neighbors. They even flaunt their relationship by going together downtown into the fictional Holt, Colorado, and lunching together. Lurking, however, in the reader’s mind, and eventually in theirs, is the presence, the possibility, of sex. Will they or won’t they? And before the end, Haruf beautifully resolves this issue.
But conversing in bed each night is not going to justify a short novel of barely 175 pages. A back story is needed. And so Addie and Louis tell each other the story of their marriages, including the betrayals and the failures, and how each lost their spouse to death. But, in addition, complications are needed. These begin with the death of a neighbor, a friend, making the reader aware of the couple’s own fragile future. But more significantly, complications come with the arrival of Addie’s son Gene and her grandson, six-year-old Jamie. Gene and his wife have separated, and so he leaves his son temporarily with Addie. Upset about the turmoil at home, Addie finds, the boy has withdrawn into himself, crying at night. And gradually, she realizes that Gene has been treating his son in the same aloof, uncaring way his own father treated him.
So, much of the novel concerns Addie’s and Louis’ efforts to restore her grandson’s emotional life. And Louis is very successful at this, which begins to further antagonize her son. At Louis’ suggestion, for example, the couple buy the boy a dog, which gives him a living being to relate to. They also resume their nights together, and help Jamie to see it as normal. But, ah, those complications. By the time Jamie is comfortable with Addie’s and Louis’ situation, his father returns. And from this point, the novel slowly winds down to its moving conclusion.
Haruf is an unusual writer that everyone interested in literature should know. Simplicity marks both his style and his characterizations. But beneath that simplicity is complexity. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes in The Guardian, “Haruf handles human relationships with fierce, reticent delicacy, exploring rage, fidelity, pity, honor, timidity, the sense of obligation; he deals with complex, barely stated moral issues, pushing perhaps toward an unspoken mysticism.” Thus, in this work, these are good people, sensitive, tender, and kind; yet they are involved in adultery, poor parenting, the death of a child, rigid emotions, and a failure to communicate with a spouse.
The mysticism is touched on lightly, as the couple discuss life after death, and disagree. It is more present in their determination to ignore the world’s opinion and to raise their relationship to the level suggested by the novel’s title.
Finally, the simplicity. In just 175 pages, the author communicates the emotional connections of these two lives, the reaction of a gossipy town, the clash of contrasting moralities, and a generational conflict. That they come across reflects both the directness of his presentation, the bare details needed, and the deep, personal emotions of love, pride, and envy that are prompted simply by two people sleeping together. The complexity of the situation is also simplified by the couple addressing, first, the unusualness of their situation, and then by their refusal to react to the gossip around them.
It is regrettable that Haruf died before being able to create more novels of such simplicity, such tenderness, such independence, and such emotional depth. One suspects, however, that his qualities, which reflect deep human understanding, will outlast those of today’s literary authors whose contemporary attitudes may become no longer so pertinent. (October, 2016)