This 2013 work is another beautifully written novel by this mid-western writer who recently died. It offers another of his portraits of the small town of Holt, Colorado, where we witness various struggling families in this middle-class community. We meet first Dad Lewis, in his seventies, who has a fatal cancer that will allow him to survive only a few more months. He has had things to regret in his life, and some of his ill deeds still haunt him, but he has tried to make amends for many of them, especially any involving his son Frank.
But this novel is to be about more than Dad. He is introduced on the opening pages more to establish the facts of old age, the limited future it offers, the focus on life’s simple verities, and the sense of family, how both the elderly and their children respond to each other’s travails.
Thus, we also meet Mary, Dad’s wife, and their daughter Lorraine; his widowed neighbor Greta May and her eight-year-old granddaughter Alice; the new minister Rob Lyle and his troubled son Thomas; and the elderly Johnson women, Willa and visiting Alene, who live across the field and feel that an eight-year-old may be too much for Greta May to handle.
Lorraine returns home from Denver when she learns of her father’s illness. Greta May welcomes Willa and Alene’s attention to her granddaughter. In the past, Alene had fallen in love with a married man and after losing him fears that she will be alone for the rest of her life. And so her mother suggests they develop a relationship with the child Alice. Meanwhile, Minister Lyle proves to be too liberal for his parishioners, preaching Jesus’ message that love and forgiveness be offered to both sinners and the poor, which many of the townspeople reject. He must also deal with his troubled son Thomas, who can’t adjust to small-town life after living in Denver. And finally there is Dad and Mary’s estranged son Frank, who is homosexual and has fled the prejudices of a small town, leaving his parents to yearn for his return because of his father’s illness.
Thus, we have simultaneous stories of parents and children, of young and old, of love and despair, of families straining at bonds, of young and old searching for hope, and of death’s presence in each of their lives. As Ursula LeGuin writes in The Guardian, “I find that Haruf’s characters… inhabit my mind permanently: they are people I think about. Their conversation is dry and plain, with easy, western cadence, and the author’s narration is similar.” She also writes: “Looking at the Holt novels as a whole, his courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.”
One reads with interest of these troubled people (troubled lives are a condition of living, Haruf says) because the author lets us see them from their own perspective and because he also sympathizes with them. As we do as well. Even with the black sheep, Thomas, and Frank. And a major part of letting us see that perspective is through the dialogue, a dialogue that is simple, that is casual, and that includes throw-away lines that appear in any natural conversation, often adding a touch of humor but also revealing character.
One should also note that Haruf is one of those authors who does not use quotation marks. If his dialogue is easily understood as dialogue, it is primarily because each new speaker begins with a new paragraph—which also happens, of course, when using quotation marks. So it has to be visual, the reason certain authors do not use quotation marks. That is, they see those marks as a distraction. And, of course, not using quotation marks here also reflects the simplicity of this author’s approach to his people and their lives. But using no quotation marks will work only if the dialogue has the clear rhythms of speech, not of prose. As it does here.
In discussing his concentration on life’s verities, Haruf told Robert Birnbaum of the literary website, Identity Theory, “There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out.”
For most of this novel, we are simply listening in on the lives of these people. The novel introduces us to multiple relationships, and seems not to emphasize any of the characters, or to be headed in any direction. And yet, we do read on. Because these people, their interactions, their desires and their troubles, are all so human.
And then, as we finish this book, we realize what Haruf’s goal is. He is writing about life. That is why there is no plot, no story that comes to an end. What comes to an end is one life. It is an ending that stands in for all our lives. It is a final 20 pages or so of a character in bed and slowly leaving this world, and family and friends reacting to that slow and inevitable departure.
And so we also realize why the author, the son of a minister, has arrived at this novel’s conclusion. As well as why he has created Minister Lyle. It is to introduce a spiritual dimension. For how can one deal with the final resolution of life without that dimension?
Paul Elie in The New York Times does find an incompleteness in the Reverend Lyle’s presence. But this novel is not about the minister, like it is not about Dad. It is about life and its end. It is about our approach to death, and how, in life or death, we search for light as our destination. It also suggests that at the end of life, as other characters live on, so life goes on. And that as one creates fictional characters one hopes will live on, so do we, as readers, all hope that our own life shall go on.
Haruf died the following year, 2014, and one wonders how much his knowledge of his own fate influenced the writing of this book. He did write one more book in his final days, a novel that focused on love more than on death, and it offered a different story of old people that I also loved. But in sum, I believe this novel offers more of a capstone to his career, and to his life, than that actual final novel. For this one is about the full gamut of life and, eventually, about death itself. (September, 2019)