Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

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)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)