‘It’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing’ – Benediction by Kent Haruf
Benediction is Haruf’s fifth novel, and the third in the loose trilogy that began with Plainsong (1999) and continued with Eventide (2004). Like all his work, it’s set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, and it’s about the quiet lives of people you’d probably call unremarkable, only (with a quick nod to Jon McGregor), Haruf’s triumph is to show that under the dusty, ill-painted hood, there’s plenty worth talking about.
Old Dad Lewis, owner of Holt’s hardware store, is dying. In his sickbed, he remembers ancient upsets and regrets: the former employee who killed himself, and the loss of his own son, Frank, who left home after high-school when Dad couldn’t accept his sexuality. Meanwhile Dad’s grown-up daughter, Lorraine, still mourning the long-ago death of her own child, has to decide whether to stay in Holt and run Dad’s shop, or return to Denver with the lover she’s unsure about. Two sets of neighbours call on the Lewis family as Dad lies in bed: Willa Johnson and her daughter Alene, and Berta May and her orphaned grandchild, Alice. The generations of women draw closer together as Dad’s health deteriorates. And Holt’s new reverend, Rob Lyle, is trying to make a new start, having left is last position in disgrace, much to the humiliation of his wife and teenage son. The convergence of these lives through a hot Colorado summer is the substance of Benediction, though it’s more atmospheric and thoughtful than it is heavily plotted.
So, the good and the bad. If you’ve read Haruf before, you’ll know pretty much exactly what you’re in for—a mostly distanced and carefully detailed narration of ordinary life and household activity and small town whispers. It’s not quite timeless (9/11 comes up with a bang), but there’s the same sense of close isolation, of a place adrift from the wider world, that the other novels evoked. Haruf takes the rhythm of Cormac McCarthy and the domestic beauty and faith of Marilynne Robinson and comes up with a sad and lovely set of portraits. Which is good. You might be less favourably inclined if you’re after McCarthy’s horror, or Robinson’s theological depth; Haruf works on a slightly easier level than that. But his simple prose is delicate and exact, and, like the farm chores in Plainsong, he makes the routine of a hardware store in Benediction feel beautiful. At the risk of sounding facetious, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing.
The bad lies more in comparison to his earlier work that it does in any great flaw in this novel. Here, Haruf uses tropes (the innocent child, old men growing frail, teenage sexual difficulties, wise women, tender-hearted tough men) that we recognise from both Plainsong and Eventide, and though he still, of course, does it well, it does lose something in the repetition. There’s a little less humour here, though in a novel about death and endings, that’s probably to be expected. Dad Lewis doesn’t stand out like his counterparts, the McPheron brothers, in Plainsong, and his death (never fear: this is about as far from a spoiler as you can get) isn’t as heart-wrenching as Harold’s, in Eventide. And though Willa, Alene and Berta May play the same healing role as Maggie Jones, they’re perhaps spread a little thin and suffer for it. Alice’s naivety isn’t set up against the same challenges as that of Ike and Bobbie Guthrie. I think the slight lessening of resonance from Eventide to Benediction is perhaps because there’s fewer continuities than there was between the two earlier books; there’s a nod and a wink, certainly, when Dad brings his wife, Mary, and Lorraine to look at the now-deserted old McPherson place, but otherwise, the links are limited to the albeit excellently drawn town of Holt and its various landmarks. That’s the peril of a series: it becomes difficult to judge the later books entirely on their own merits. And the genius of Haruf’s earlier works makes them tough to follow.
All that said, I greatly enjoyed it. I’m a nit-picking pedant, but Haruf’s prose has a tenderness and a loving grace that you don’t see too often. It’s very sad, sure, but this novel pictures people moving together to overcome grief and hardship, to bless one another and to get by. There’s no naive implication that small town life is out and out harmonious—far from it—but Haruf doesn’t write with cynicism, so that while we witness the nastiness of life, its hard-heartnedness and meanness, we see that that’s not all that’s out there. And his main characters are mostly middle-aged or downright elderly, which I like—there’s no tyranny of youth in Holt, Colorado!
Any Cop?: This is a tender, melancholic novel with a warmth that’s not very common in literary fiction. Not one for the action fiends or for those after a salacious bit of pulp, but for everyone else, big thumbs up.
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- March 5, 2013 / 1:09 pm