Even by the standards of his own spare yet moving work, Kent Haruf’s latest — and last — novel is not much more than a morsel, a pared-down story that reveals quiet, often heartbreaking truths about regret and growing old. It’s a poignant taste of what we’ve come to know and love about his books — and what we’ll miss so much.
In Our Souls at Night, Louis and Addie — both widowed, familiar to each other yet not close enough to be considered friends — meet each evening at her house. They might have a drink at the kitchen table. Then they go to bed. They are not young. They are not meeting in the dark for sex. Instead, they talk quietly, lying side by side.
“We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years,” Addie tells Louis after she walks over to his house to propose the unusual arrangement. “I’m lonely. I think you might be, too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”
Haruf, who died at 71 last November, spent his writing life exploring the dusty eastern plains town of Holt, Colorado, in such novels as Plainsong, its sequel Eventide, The Tie That Binds, Where You Once Belonged and Benediction. Holt is a simple place, but the people who live there are no less interesting for their modest origins. Their familiar patterns are soothing: They’re born, they grow up, move away or stay put, fall in love. They share meals in neighborly solidarity and struggle with wayward family members who chafe at the constraints of such a tiny, rural, conservative community. Eventually they grow old.
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Sometimes, they surprise everybody — and themselves — by rebelling against what’s expected. In Haruf’s breakthrough novel, the beloved Plainsong, a pair of bachelor rancher brothers take in a pregnant teenager. Echoing their boldness, Addie makes her own life-changing decision, and she refuses to apologize for it. When Louis shows up at her back door on their first night together — “I thought it would be less likely for people to see me,” he explains, with a mix of chivalry and timidity — she displays a formidable courage.
“I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. ... I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long — all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.”
And so they embark on their odd affair, sharing their pasts at night (both endured troubled marriages in which tragedy or bad decision-making eroded the initial attraction). They hear occasional pointed comments and decide to meet them head-on by starting to go out in public. When Addie’s young grandson Jamie comes to stay for a bit — his parents have split — the three of them grow easy in each other’s company as summer rolls on.
Even so, the burden of others’ expectations begin to weigh heavily. “You’re acting like a teenager,” Louis’ adult daughter accuses. “I never acted like this as a teenager,” Louis replies. “I never dared anything.”
Haruf has always been clear-eyed and unsentimental about his elderly characters (in Benediction, a hardware store owner receives a fatal prognosis and goes about the rest of his days with undramatic good grace). With Our Souls at Night Haruf makes a plea for understanding: Addie and Louis are in their 70s, healthy, and yet they’ve realized the unspoken rule: that time will run out, that they should do what they want while they can. They should not be beholden to capricious adult children or gossipy neighbors. Time is short, Haruf tells us. Use it well.
Our Souls at Night may not inspire the devotion of Plainsong or the equally touching Eventide, but it’s a surprisingly powerful little book that ends the author’s career on a bittersweet note. It’s a gift, this final taste of Holt. Savor it.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.