In a small town on the high plains, an old man is dying. His family, minus one, gathers to care for him. The neighbors stop by to pay respects. Memories surface, and regret arises; the end has a way of stoking that emotion. “I’m going to die and not even have lived yet,” laments one character, giving voice to our secret fear. “It’s so ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s all so pointless.”
But what Kent Haruf sets out to do in Benediction, his fifth novel set in sleepy Holt, Colo., is to prove that the ordinary isn’t pointless, that even if they’re not the stuff of legend, our lives can be full of grace and meaning. We may not always recognize the best moments — maybe because they are often as simple as eating off the good china at a backyard picnic — but Haruf understands their power to make us human.
Haruf has tread this territory before, most recently in his novels Plainsong, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and its sequel, E ventide (though the latter was published almost 10 years ago). In his clean, unfussy prose, straight and true as the roads that run through the unbroken countryside outside Holt, he writes without sentimentality or preciousness.
In Plainsong and Eventide, he focused in particular on the McPheron brothers, old bachelor ranchers who took in a young pregnant woman with nowhere to go and then silently ached when she took her baby and left for college.
In Benediction, the McPherons are long dead — “the baby’s grown up by now, of course,” a character explains — and Haruf’s focus shifts to other families. Dad Lewis, who owns the local hardware store, has just learned his cancer is incurable; his wife, Mary, has summoned their grown daughter, Lorraine, to stay with them for the short time Dad has left. Missing is estranged son Frank, who has had only rare contact with the rest of the family since he fled Holt after high school.
Haruf also turns his attention to neighbors who waft in and out of the Lewises’ sphere: old Berta May and young Alice, the granddaughter she is raising; aging mother and daughter Willa and Alene, who complement each other like old friends, though they have had their differences; Rev. Rob Lyle, the town’s new minister, who has left Denver in disgrace, infuriating his wife and teenage son in the process.
The novel winds through the dry, hot days of summer, and quiet weeks slide by punctuated by sudden storms, real and figurative. Dad asks Lorraine to run the hardware store when he’s gone. Lorraine’s lover, whom her parents dislike, arrives for an awkward visit. Willa and Alene buy Alice a bicycle. Mary drives to Denver to look for Frank, though decades have passed since he last lived there. Rob’s petulant son falls fiercely in love. The pastor gives another unpopular sermon and gets beaten up. These characters are capable of kindnesses great and small, but they’re not perfect, and Haruf knows well the plight of going against the conventional thinking in a small town.
Still, what lingers isn’t the plot, which is insubstantial and quite beside the point. Instead, Haruf paints indelible portraits of drifting days that reveal unexpected blessings. Sometimes just meeting the right person is enough. A young couple asks Rob to marry them, and when he asks why they love each other, the man replies, “My life is altogether different ever since I met her. My life is every way changed. … I want to say this girl has altered just about everything in the world for me. To the good, I mean.”
Sometimes happiness is even simpler, as Willa, Alene, Lorraine and Alice discover one hot day when they decide to cool off in the stock tank. “Lord!” Willa shouts when she feels the sting of the cold water. “I’m an old woman and I’ve never been naked outdoors before. Look at me.”
Making peace with ourselves, Haruf tells us, may not be a matter of making grand gestures but of appreciating the new — and the familiar.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Benediction is that despite its subject matter, it’s never depressing. There is sorrow, yes, and there are no magic cures. Dad Lewis confronts his fate stoically, as men of his generation do. “I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go,” he confides to Mary. “A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that.”
Haruf evokes a deep sense of comfort and support, even as the rhythms of life wind down, as if there is something undefined but beautiful about the way we are ushered out of this world. Not ridiculous. Not absurd. Definitely not pointless.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.