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)

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)