Benediction, by Kent Haruf

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)

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

This 2011 work is an outstanding mystery, one of Connelly’s best. Harry Bosch is approaching mandated retirement as a cop, and he is given two cases. The two cases are not connected, and they never overlap. But what they both do is examine the idea of justice. From almost opposite directions. They ask what are the ends that justify the means of administering justice. And in one case, the reader leans toward the justice thwarted rather than the justice achieved. And in the other, he leans toward the justice achieved rather than the justice compromised.

The novel works because of the complexity of both cases, but it also works because Bosch is fully human. He is a cop, but he has a personal life that begins with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie; and he often stops his investigations—as Connelly stops his fast pace—to interact with her. Their conversations may last less than a page, but we see what a good father and a good person he is. Bosch is also a widower, and lonely; and when he meets an attractive therapist, Hannah Stone, on one of the cases, both he and the reader hope she will be able to fill the emotional side of his life. In fact, even his daughter wishes so. Meanwhile, in his professional life, Bosch has an interesting, changing relationship with his partner, Chu, who both helps him and betrays him. Chu himself is also interesting, as he has his own issues, and resents this boss who never confides in him.

The Drop is aptly titled. DROP stands, conveniently, for Bosch’s status in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Plus, one case he is handling concerns whether George Irving, a man who has dropped from a hotel balcony, has died as a result of a murder, a suicide, or an accident. And why does his powerful politician father Irvin Irving, an anti-police nemesis of Bosch, ask Bosch of all people to handle a case which involves the death of his son?

The other case involves a rape and murder from the past that went unsolved, and had been dropped by the police. Now, it has resurfaced in the LA police department’s Open-Unsolved Unit, where Bosch works, after new DNA evidence has been discovered. Plus, there are also occasions when Bosch is being encouraged to drop each of these two cases.

Connelly spends more time on the first case, in which the prominent politician demands that Bosch find the truth about his son’s death from the hotel balcony. The case brings Bosch into the continual contact with the politics and justice practiced in Los Angeles, and offers the reader frequent insights into the interactions among citizens, the police, politicians, and judges. This case revolves around the son using his father’s political connections to curry favors for his clients. Bosch learns that the son’s situation is more complicated than that, however, and as he explores the son’s connections with politics, the police, and his family, the detective leans toward different explanations of his death. This is what builds the suspense, as the reader is also turned in one direction and then in another.

The rape and murder case is complicated by the fact that the blood on the victim’s body belongs to an eight-year-old child, Clayton Pell, who is now an adult. He could not have committed the rape and murder, of course, at eight years old. Then who did? Bosch uses logic and his powers of investigation to find out, but then the boy emerges as a mayor player as he both emerges as a criminal himself and seeks his own kind of justice. This dark side of society is leavened, however, by Bosch’s romance with the boy’s therapist; and yet at the same time it is complicated by the boy’s evolution into a man whose adult transgressions have been formed by his rough early life. So, when do we sympathize with Clayton Pell, and when do we not? Connolly loves these emotional conflicts, these ironies, and his work is all the stronger for it.

After these two fascinating, complicated cases, it is the book’s ending that helps it to end on a strong point, one that points to the irony and complexity of justice. For it suggests that one guilty man may not be so guilty, after all. And that the department Bosch is so dedicated to appears to have its own kind of guilt.

And so, one wonders how cynical Bosch will remain in Connelly’s next book. Will he be further disillusioned by the police corruption that he terms “high jingo”? Or will he soften, as he shares his heart with someone besides his daughter? No, he has to remain the hard-boiled cynic, even as he remains a needy person. Perhaps, in fact, the cynicism is to shield him from that neediness. On the other hand, maybe the world around him will be lightened by either Hannah or future characters. We shall see. All I know is that this novel has certainly interested me in more of Connelly’s work. (October, 2016)