FICTION: PLAIN STORY
"Benediction" by Kent Haruf (Alfred A. Knopf)
Colorado author Kent Haruf has an extraordinary grasp of quiet.
You'll find proof in his masterful new novel, "Benediction," a gentle but forceful rendering of protagonist "Dad" Lewis' last days in the high plains town of Holt.
Dad (the only name he goes by, even to the employees at his hardware store) is an 80-something man in the final, painful stages of cancer. As he slouches toward death, his town and his history coil around him.
And in the end (no spoilers here, you know where this is going from the very first pages), Dad dies.
The coiling of Haruf's Holt, a fictional hamlet several hours east of Denver where Haruf's earlier novels "Plainsong" and "Eventide" were also set, is at turns graceful and prickly. Holt's rhythms are driven by a recognizable rural paradox — expansive skies suggest limitless freedom, but nothing goes unnoticed. A tight community is a double-edged scythe. It's there when you need it, but also when you don't. Dad's debility brings well-wishers to the door and secrets to the surface.
Dad's wife, Mary, acts as his shepherd, organizing his schedule, directing his pain management, lying in bed with him, holding his head and hand. If "Benediction" were only about this rich, supple romance, it would be a treasure. But Haruf's careful pen also produced a mesmerizing cast of supporting characters: Dad and Mary's children (one is present, one is not), their neighbors (the town pastor and his family, a young girl living next door) and Dad's employees at the local hardware shop. Some voices will be recognizable to readers of Haruf's earlier works.
People and place come together in depictions of summertime life on the high plains, for better and worse. The stifling heat is unbearable in the after-noons, but later:
In the evening, after the Johnson women went home, Lorraine brought a table from the house and set the supper dishes on it out on the porch, and Berta May and Alice came across the yard carrying bread and garden beans and radishes, and they sat all out in the cooling air and sat Dad Lewis up at the table with a blanket over him.
After supper Alice got on her bike to ride in the street.
Dad watched her from the porch. I hope she don't get run over out there. You better pay good attention to her.
The light had gone out of the sky by now and the street lamps had come on and she rode, going back and forth, from pool of light to pool of light.
Dad becomes friends with young Alice, sort of. He makes peace with the difficult choices of his past, sort of. He comes clean with Mary, sort of. He acknowledges God, sort of.
Haruf takes care not to sanctify his hero. Dad is imperfect. He's the center of a broken family, and he himself is responsible for some of the fractures. He's had conflicts, he's made mistakes, he's hurt people.
But no one in Holt — in the world — dies blameless, and redemption is a slippery goal. As he approaches his final breath, Dad comes to know that the real resolution is to accept and bundle his deep flaws with his best intentions, and carry the whole with him as he goes. Dying as an unclean slate is not necessarily a death without peace.
The big questions, if never easy to answer, ought at least to be easier to articulate at the end of life: Who am I? How did I get here? What will I leave behind? But like the ever-present wind on Haruf's high plain, the big questions swirl well beyond Dad's grasp, or ours.
And in Haruf's exquisite world of exhalation, that's exactly how things should be.
Tucker Shaw: 303-954-1958, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/tucker_shaw
MEET THE AUTHOR Kent Haruf will speak and sign copies of "Benediction" at the Tattered Cover LoDo on March 6. tatteredcover.com/event