Kent Haruf takes his time. His first novel, The Ties That Bind, was published in 1984, winning a Whiting Foundation Award and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. His second novel, Where You Once Belonged was published in 1990. Plainsong, which became a best-seller and was a National Book Award finalist, was published in 1999. It’s sequel, Eventide, was published in 2004. Nine years later we have Haruf’s fifth novel, Benediction. All his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, (a stand-in for Yuma where Haruf once lived) nearer to Kansas and Nebraska than to that suspect center of the scary urban, Denver. Benediction is not a sequel, but a stand-alone, although there are a few nods to characters from prior tales. All Haruf’s novels are top-notch, written at a very high plane of craft, observation and insight, and Benediction fits in very nicely with his existing, outstanding body of work.
Dad Lewis gets the bad news straight away, cancer, terminal. Get your affairs in order. Over the remaining few months of his life Dad (we never learn his proper first name) does just that. We visit with him as he tries to come to terms with his life, recalling how he came to be on his own as a teen, how he met the love of his life, how he treated those around him, his son, daughter, employees, neighbors. This being a Kent Haruf novel, it takes a village to tell a tale. Eight-year-old Alice has arrived next door, at her grandmother’s, her father long gone and her mother recently deceased. How the people of Holt cope with her presence will feel very familiar for return readers of Haruf’s work, but still both startling in some of the details and incredibly moving in its execution. Reverend Lyle, late of Denver, makes the crucial mistake of actually preaching the gospel, not what most of the parishioners want to hear. His wife and son wish he would keep such things to himself. Haruf was the son of a minister, and his depiction of the politics of town religious institutions has the ring of seen rather than revealed truth. There is an older mother-daughter pair who figure into the story, most particularly in a wonderful scene that is simultaneously baptismal and pagan, and a few more characters who matter beside. There are no saints here, no demons. (well, ok, a few very minor characters are purely awful) Forgiveness is a major element for many of the relationships here. It is tougher to create an image with fine lines than to paint with broad strokes. Haruf takes his time and makes his characters breathe.
All the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Holt apparently. There is enough quiet desperation in Holt that I was reminded at times of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Love does not seem to last often enough, but there are some exceptions that keep hope alive. We are invited to look at relationships between parents and children, between present, past, potential and real lovers, and between people and the places in which they live. Communities definitely affect one’s options, for good and ill.
One might wonder how the author goes about constructing his novels. Fortunately he has told us
When I think of a story, I always begin with the characters. I daydream and brood and imagine that character for nearly a year and, of course, they all have to have problems, so I think about their problems. Then I begin to imagine and daydream about the people that would be in their lives, and their problems. It’s my biggest effort to figure out how to bring them together in a way that would move the story forward — not necessarily predictably but certainly inevitably.
The atmospherics of Holt figure significantly in how we are handled as readers. After Dad gets the news and returns home, the sun is down. An assault is accompanied by rain. A parent hitting a child is lit by The wind cried and whistled in the leafless trees. During a significant sermon, The sanctuary was hot. The windows were open but it was a hot day and hot inside. It gets hotter and you get the idea. The use of weather throughout is ever-present, but tempered, never intrusive, there to add a highlight, reinforce a mood, never to direct traffic. Characters relate a fair bit around food as well, feeding each other or not. The flatness of the terrain adds exposure. …on the plains, everything is visible, nothing is isolated. That appeals to me a great deal, these people being so visible, as if they’re seen in a spotlight. There is a scene that grabbed me, in which a character is walking the town at night and is stopped by the police:
Is there something wrong with you? What are you doing out here?
I’m just walking. Having a look around town.
Your family knows where you are?
They know I’m taking a walk.
It doesn’t bother you to look in other people’s houses? You think that’s all right.
I don’t think I’m doing any harm. I didn’t mean to.
Well, these people don’t like it. This man called you in.
What did he say?
That you were looking in his house.
Did he say what he was doing in his house?
Why would he say that?
People in their houses at night. These ordinary lives. Passing without their knowing. I’d hoped to recapture something.
The officer stared at him.
The precious ordinary.
I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’d better keep moving.
I thought I’d see people being hurtful. Cruel. A man hitting his wife. But I haven’t seen that. Maybe all that’s behind the curtains. If you’re going to hit somebody maybe you pull the curtain first.
What I’ve seen is the sweet kindness of one person to another. Just time passing on a summer’s night. This ordinary life.
That passage seems to epitomize the writing and sensibility of Kent Haruf. His literary doppelganger, wandering through a town of people, seeing decency and finding meaning and joy in “this ordinary life.” It’s not hard to say something nice about Benediction. Haruf writes of real human concerns, real human problems, engagingly and effectively. You will come to care about someone in Haruf’s Holt, maybe more than one someone. Take your time with this one. Read it slowly. As we have come to expect, whenever Kent Haruf produces a new book, it is always a blessing.
I found many interviews with the author, and have included links to a few here, in case you get the urge. The author quotes I used are from the first one listed.
Benediction was chosen as the #1 Indie Next List Pick for March 2013. Here is the interview from Bookselling This Week, a publication of the American Bookseller’s Association, by Elizabeth Knapp
From Telluride Inside and Out – interview by Mark Stephens
This Barnes and Noble profile was written by Christina Nunez
This interview is from November 2012, in Publishers Weekly on-line, by Claire Kirch
P.S. – I suspect that Kent Haruf has a secret first name, Clark.