Posts Tagged ‘Kent Haruf’

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Alfred Knopf. New York. 2015. 179 pp.

Two unexceptional people in Holt, CO (the a small Colorado plains town setting of all Haruf’s books) strike up a highly unusual (and often speculated on by the town’s busybodies) friendship. In the short summer that they are together they act as “parents” to the woman’s grandson, a five year old, hurting from the constant battles between his dad and mom. Perfectly normal events take place: the three go to the rodeo, get a dog, go camping, tend a garden, sip iced tea and eat sandwiches. They put the little boy to sleep and then climb into bed together and talk.

images-1It’s the climbing into bed part that gets her son, his daughter, and the town riled up even though there is nothing “going on.” Just two lonely old people, a widow, a widower, trying to get through the endless nights.

This gem of a novella is perfect in its construction and execution. Haruf tells the story with crystalline and exceedingly simple language. Short chapters run through their days. Haruf has abandoned the use of quotes, even though the majority of the text is dialog. At first it’s somewhat disconcerting, but in a few pages the lack of those annoying punctuation marks becomes another metaphor for the story. It’s plain, unadorned. The dialog needs no more attention drawn to it than any other normal thing that takes place in this uneventful summer.

Still, there is foreboding and ultimately a truly tragic ending. But like the rest of the book the power is derived from the sheer mundaneness in which it evolves and is described. The final line: “Dear, is it cold there tonight?” is at once wrenching and incredibly beautiful.

As I reached the conclusion I wept, for the characters and the story, as well as for the realization that this is final gift that Kent Haruf will give. Sadly, he died shortly before its publication.

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Benediction by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2013. 258 pp.

I read a lot. All sorts of books—literary fiction, history, environmental reviews, even (too many) mysteries. Most are acceptably written ( although I must confess I quit a book last week at the sentence: “She took off her gloves, and ate them.” Of course it was a reference to the strawberries the author had mentioned three lines earlier, but ouch!) Occasionally books rise to the very top form of writing.

Courtesy of Knopf

Courtesy of Knopf

In that category, Kent Haruf has to be in the top five living Americans writing fiction. So it was with great excitement that I read Benediction, his most recent novel published in 2013. As with his earlier four novels the setting is Holt, CO., a small town out on the plains east of Denver, and as with the others my heart literally hurt by the last page.

As always Haruf tells such a seemingly simple, quiet story. Holt’s residents are ranch people scraping by day-to-day while rising to any occasion: from two old bachelor brothers raising up a runaway pregnant teenager in Plainsong (1999), to Benediction which describes the events leading up to the death from cancer of a local pillar of the Holt community, hardware store owner Dad Lewis. We learn of so many unresolved issues for Holt’s characters: Dad’s estrangement from his son; the minister who tells the truth too well; his teenage son full of angst and anger; the local old widow and her spinster daughter; the next door neighbor grandma bringing up her grandchild. Each is a remarkable tale, but told so plainly and matter-of-factly that each seems a mere breeze, not the chinook each actually is in the life of Holt’s people.

The writing is “exquisite, breathtaking, astonishing”. I’ve read these words all too often in reviews and generally find them to be hyperbolic after reading the book itself. But for Haruf’s books? The words are exactly right. Each is a book you will devour while never wanting it to end.

Haruf’s Holt Novels: The Tie That Binds (1984) Where You Once Belonged (1990) Plainsong (1999) Eventide (2004) Benediction (2013)

Benediction’s last two paragraphs: “That was a night in August. Dad Lewis died early that morning and the young girl Alice from next door got lost in the evening and then found her way home in the dark by the streetlights of town and so returned to the people who loved her.

And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.”

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