And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.
Louis and Addie are both getting on, in their 70s, Louis having lost his wife a year back, Addie a widow for some time. Both are lonely and could do with some company. While they have known each other for a long time, they have never been close. Acquaintances more than friends. Until Addie suggests that it would be a great help, given her trouble sleeping, if Louis would consent to sleep with her, not hide-the-salami sleep together, but sleep, and talk, in the same bed, overnight, companionship. Louis decides to give it a try.
Addie and Louis slowly begin to share their histories. The biddies of Holt, male and female, are taken aback, of course, at the presumed impropriety, as if, once elderly and alone, it was somehow sinful to still want to have a life. There are scenes in which they each are put on the spot and made to defend themselves to snickering locals about their arrangement. Feel free to cheer. Fueling his unhappiness with permanent rage about his childhood, Addie’s son, Gene, in particular, cannot tolerate his mother and Louis being together, projecting into it his fantasy that Louis is in the relationship to somehow swindle Addie out of her money. Problems ensue.
A consistent focus in Haruf’s novels is the unconventional family, whether of elderly brothers taking in a pregnant girl, or grandparents taking care of an eight-year old. Well, that may not be all that unconventional these days, but it still ain’t Ozzie and Harriet. In this one, Addie’s son, Gene, has his hands full with problems at home, so sends his son, Jamie, to stay with Addie for a stretch of summer. Addie, Louis and Jamie form a very close relationship. There are moving sequences of outings and bonding moments that exude love and comfort, a contrast to the difficult relationships experienced between closer blood relations and spouses. Another Haruf concern is loneliness, at all ages. It is not only the raison d’etre of Louis and Addie’s arrangement, but is considered in relation to their former marital relationships. The loneliness of others comes in for some attention as well. Connections from generation to generation are considered. There are causes and effects, but life carries on. Haruf said, in relation to Benediction
in the very next house, there is this 8-year-old girl who is the representative of hope and promise and youth and joy. And so what I am wanting people to feel is that the beginning and the ending in all of our lives are set side-by-side. They are not distinct from one another.
The same could very well be applied here, connecting the lives of folks at both ends of their mortality. Haruf had been hoping to get to the January 2015 premier of the Denver Center production of a theater version of his novel Benediction.
The cast is much reduced in Our Souls at Night relative to that of his prior novels. The focus is on the two main characters, with Jamie in a large supporting role, and remains there for the entirety. Of course their history brings in other players, but most remain off-stage or pop by for cameos. Addie and Louis tell their stories to each other each in bed at night. It is a simple and effective mechanism for looking at two lives, their effect on others and others’ effects on them. Haruf used spare language, this, then that. If his writing were a font, it would be sans serif. And he is a master of showing instead of telling. After a rage-inducing encounter, At home he went out to the garden and hoed for an hour, hard, almost violently…. After a difficult scene, Haruf does not tell us how Louis feels. There was a woman on the elevator, she looked at his face once and looked away.
His symbolism is also simple, and effective. The title refers not only to the time of day when Louis and Addie share their lives. It reminds us that time is short. A discussion about a nest of baby mice speaks to unpredictability.
In an interview Haruf did with John Moore for The Denver Center, he talks about his use of references to his own work in the novel:
Kent Haruf: … I will tell you there is a reference to the play Benediction in this new book. It’s something these two old people have a little comment about.
John Moore: That’s part of the fun of reading of your stories. Even in Benediction, which features all new characters, there are those small references that reward those people who have been with you from the beginning.
Kent Haruf: It does. And it was a chance for me to have a little fun. Exactly as you say, people who know these other stories will immediately recognize what I am talking about.
He sets his tale in Holt, Colorado, a place that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work. In another meta moment, his characters refer to the location in reference to seeing a play of a Kent Haruf story! (not Benediction) as a way of letting readers know about his usual locale
he took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. And it’s not anybody in this town. All that’s made up.
Well, of course Holt is fictitious but Haruf is making sure readers do not assign the place entirely to a single real location. I guess he wanted to clear that up before he left us.
as a writer, I want to be thought of as somebody who had a very small talent but worked as best he could at using that talent. I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could. By that I mean that I was trying to get down to the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another. – from the Denver Center interview
I would disagree about the dimensions of his talent, but there is no question that Kent Haruf has offered the readers a world-view that may be bare bones in its form, but which is glorious in its realization.
Our Souls at Night, his sixth novel, is the last book we will ever have from Kent Haruf. It is hopeful without being saccharine. Sharing love as darkness approaches may be one of love’s highest forms, offering no short term trade for a probably unrealistic long-term promise. It makes the sharing sweeter, in a way. I got the sense, without digging into specifics, that one thing Haruf was doing here was stopping off at some favorite spots in Holt for a final goodbye. Holt will remain available for generations of readers. Haruf passed away in November, 2014 at the age of 71. He will be missed.
Review posted – 6/26/15
Publication date – 5/16/15
Here is the complete Denver Center interview
In an interview with Robert Birnbaum for the Identity Theory site,
In the Reader’s Guide of Random House’s page for the book, Haruf talks about how he worked:
The idea for the book has been floating around in my mind for quite a while. Now that I know I have, you know—a limited time—it was important to me to try to make good use of that time. So I went out there every day. Typically, I have always had a story pretty well plotted out before I start writing. This time I knew generally where the story was going, but I didn’t know very many of the details. So as it happened, I went out every day trusting myself to be able to add to the story each day. So I essentially wrote a new short chapter of the book every day. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t want to get too fancy about it, but it was like something else was working to help me get this done. Call it a muse or spiritual guidance, I don’t know. All I know is that the trust I had in being able to write every day was helpful.”