“Solemn.” That is the word I would use to describe the way I felt reading “Benediction” (2013), Kent Haruf’s newest novel. “Respectful,” I would call myself, of the close look he allows into the private lives of ordinary people.
In his fifth novel, the acclaimed author once again displays the unique writing style readers know from his previous books. His language is deceptively simple. He gets to the essence of a moment without the use of metaphor or adjectives. The setting or action or sentence seems ordinary, but its meaning reverberates.
As in his National Book Award finalist “Plainsong” (1999), Haruf lays out the stories of several residents of the fictional town of Holt on the plains of Eastern Colorado. The novel is grounded by the story of “Dad” Lewis, the owner of the town’s hardware store, who is dying from cancer. Dad, like all characters in this novel, is on a path that he must take alone but with the support from the community around him.
Dad is at heart a good man who is troubled by two episodes in earlier years where his harsh, unkind actions had serious repercussions. Those stories come back to haunt him and now, as his life is ending, he must accept that there may be no resolution.
Dad’s wife, Mary, and adult daughter, Lorraine, lovingly care for him. Without a moment’s hesitation, they do all the unpleasant tasks required in his end-of-life care.
In this small town, there is another man at a critical point in his life. Preacher Lyle, his wife and son have recently moved to Holt for a fresh start. They are guardedly accepted by the congregation until one Sunday when, instead of delivering a sermon from the pulpit, he steps down and challenges them to look at how the Bible teaches forgiveness. With everyone still raw from the horror of 9/11, townspeople are outraged at the implication that the country should “turn the other cheek.”
The women of the town, delicately portrayed, are as solid as the landscape. The Johnsons, a mother and daughter team, have their own troubles but care about and comfort their neighbors in need. A young orphan, Alice, who was taken in by Bertha May, the Lewis’ next-door neighbor, is a refreshing presence to the women longing to nurture.
“I wanted to show the dailyness [sic] of life for all its value,” Haruf has told interviewers about his book. “I’m trying to write stories set in that small town that are universal.” He hopes to deliver that message by imbuing “Benediction” with a feel for the land it is set in. “I’m attempting to broaden my novels’ scope through landscape and weather, leaves falling off trees, overnight storms, timeless elements which, irrespective of human endeavor, have always been there.”
Readers should not expect to be “thrilled” or “blown away” by “Benediction.” A more subdued reaction can be satisfying, too.
Go to www.bettyhafner.com to see what Betty has been reading.