Kent Haruf’s ‘Benediction’: A bittersweet survey of small-town life and death

February 19, 2013

We’ve waited a long time for an invitation back to Holt, the fictional town in eastern Colorado that’s home to Kent Haruf’s novels. Somehow, a decade has slipped by since he publishedEventide.” A whole new generation of readers doesn’t know “Plainsong,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. Besides writing well and sometimes even selling well, Haruf does nothing to keep himself in the news. You won’t see him tweeting with Colson Whitehead or showing off his breakfast nook for the Times’ Sunday Styles section. Shy and humble, residing light-years away from those Brooklyn sophisticates, Haruf may be the most muted master in American fiction: our anti-Franzen. Haruf’s five novels are as plain and fortifying as steel-cut oatmeal: certified 100-percent irony-free, guaranteed to wither magic realism, stylistic flourishes and postmodern gimmicks.

His new novel, “Benediction,” makes a stray reference to the two old brothers in “Eventide,” and fans will feel familiar back in Holt, but Haruf is working now with a fresh constellation of characters. In a structure reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio,” Haruf moves through several story lines that sometime intersect as these people, young and old, go about the daily business of small-town life.

But death is the axis of “Benediction.” In the opening pages, Dad Lewis — everybody has called him “Dad” for decades — gets bad news from his doctor: “He would be dead before the end of summer,” Haruf writes. “By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.”

The clear-eyed starkness of those lines never wavers as we watch Dad slow down over the next few months and finally die in his own bed at home in the company of Mary, his wife of more than 50 years, and Lorraine, their daughter. The mechanics of hospice care for an old man can make grim reading, of course, but Haruf is no more interested in the pornography of cancer than he is in the sentimentality of illness. Mary and Lorraine do the best they can to make Dad comfortable and prepare themselves for his absence. Sometimes, they tear up — so will you — but mostly, they’re just as stoic and spare as the lines of this quiet novel.

Uncomfortable but reluctant to use the opiates that a visiting nurse brings to the house, Dad is beyond small talk or empty politeness. There’s no gallows humor here, but Dad realizes that he can eat what he wants now and that he’ll never have “to paint the iron fence again.” What matters to him in these final months is settling his accounts as a husband, a father and proprietor of the town’s hardware store. Some of his memories are painful, particularly now that the time for redemption is so short.


“Benediction” by Kent Haruf (Knopf)

Hardworking and inflexibly righteous, Dad is “a man you could set your clock by,” but that rigidity could draw blood, too. We see him punishing a dishonest employee and later reacting cruelly to his son’s homosexuality — moments that still haunt him despite his best efforts to make amends.

Indeed, one of the book’s most mournful themes stems from Dad’s realization that some actions, no matter how thoroughly repented, can’t be erased.

At its best, “Benediction” offers deceptively simple “little dramas, the routine moments” of small-town life, stripped to their elemental details. Haruf’s minimalism achieves more emotional impact than seems possible with such distilled material and so few words. Each chapter ends with a sigh of regret or longing that suggests subterranean forces at work. He produces the kind of scenes that Hemingway might have written had he survived the ravages of depression.

Between the chapters about Dad, we see glimpses of the people around him, mostly living lives of quiet desperation. The new minister at church, for instance, is determined to shock his congregation with the radical demands of the Gospels, a plan that works about as well as you might expect. Rev. Wesley isn’t a bad man, and there’s nothing wrong with his grasp of what Jesus preaches, but he’s wildly ineffective at bringing people to Christ and dangerously blind to what’s happening to his family. In short, unadorned scraps of dialogue — never set off with quotation marks — Haruf suggests how bitterly unhappy his wife and teenage son are.

“He’s not preaching here. At the table to us. But he still sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral,” the boy complains one night to his mother. “I can’t stand it when he sounds like that.”

Some of the novel’s most emotionally complex scenes involve three older, unmarried women, town folks who offer their support as Dad’s illness progresses. Touches of melodrama involving one of them and her affair with the school principal strike a garish note in this otherwise carefully written book, but Haruf is at his best when he writes about tender moments of friendship that germinate even in the soil of discouragement and self-pity. Across from Dad’s house lives a little orphaned girl who’s trying to figure out how to behave among the old ladies who find her such a comfort and joy. An afternoon of skinny-dipping in the cows’ stock tank is a passage of mingled delight, absurdity and baptism.

The theological halo that hovers over Haruf’s titles — “Plainsong,” “Eventide,” “Benediction” — suggests how central faith and morality are to his work. Given the setting and the tone, it’s easy to hear an echo of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction here, although Haruf’s novels are less theological and austere. The Calvinist spirit of Robinson’s God has been replaced by the subtler, gentler influences of Haruf’s boyhood Methodism.

One of the old women in town tells their defeated minister, “All life is moving through some kind of unhappiness. . . . But there’s some good too. . . . I insist on that.” Looking back on his life, Dad admits, “I was too busy. I wasn’t paying attention.” For all its pain and smothered despair, “Benediction” seems designed to help us catch the sound of those fleeting good moments.

Charles is fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

BENEDICTION

By Kent Haruf

Knopf. 258 pp. $25.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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