Wednesday, January 1, 2014
"Benediction," by Kent Haruf
I was, some years ago, quietly bowled over by Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel “Plainsong.” I have now just listened to a CD of his newest novel, “Benediction” (Knopf, 2013; Books On Tape, 2013) and was quietly bowled over all over again. Both novels are set in a small town in Colorado, not in the mountains but in the flat lands. Both tell quiet stories of everyday life, of family, of community, of life and death and connection and integrity. Both stories are told simply, with little description, little explanation. Their very simplicity is what makes them so lovely, so graceful, and so real. The main focus of "Benediction" is the dying of hardware store owner Dad Lewis, and his loving wife Mary's and daughter Lorraine’s taking care of him at home in his last weeks. Neighbors, friends, employees, and a minister all support the family as they go through these last days. Dad is a good man, a man of integrity, but has not been able to understand his family and others as well as he now wishes he had; he now realizes he has been too rigid and judgmental to some people in his life. He has regrets about this, most especially about his estrangement from his son Frank, who is gay, and who escaped his family and small town years ago. There are a couple of other stories in the novel, all intertwined with the main story. But the plot is not really the main point here. The novel gives us a close-up experience of circumscribed but sturdy lives in a small town. We also realize that “circumscribed” is all relative: Dad at one point reflects that for him, getting off his family’s farm in Kansas as a young man and making a life for himself in a small town in Colorado was an opening up of his world. Small town people, and small town life, are not idealized here, and in some cases there is a sad intolerance of difference. But there is also a sense of people knowing how to keep going, one foot in front of the other, and to care about and take care of each other. We feel we know the characters, and admire them, despite their imperfections. And yes, there is a sense of “benediction” bestowed in and by this quiet, beautiful novel. I highly recommend it.