- Kent Haruf
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Keith Donohue
- April 2, 2013
A quiet portrait of a dying man’s final months, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.
Dying well is difficult. For some, the moment comes suddenly or without warning, but for others, death comes gradually, with enough time to make amends and say goodbye to this life. Such is the case in Kent Haruf’s new novel, which opens with a scene of an old man known as Dad Lewis receiving the news that he has cancer and a prognosis of just a few months more to say goodbye. Benediction gives an account of those final months and the impact of the death of an ordinary man on the lives of family and friends.
From this simple premise springs a novel of extraordinary beauty. Readers familiar with Haruf’s earlier novels, particularly Plainsong and Eventide, will welcome not only the chance to hear again the music in his prose, but also to revisit the small town of Holt, Colorado, situated on the plains and sandhills east of Denver. Haruf has done for this part of the country what Louise Erdrich has done for Ojibwe country and Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, giving to a people and a habitation a name and a voice. Readers new to this part of the world will soon be in its thrall and driven to seek out and devour Haruf’s earlier novels.
This story stands on its own. At the core are Dad Lewis and his wife Mary, their estranged son, and their daughter Lorraine, who comes home from Denver to help care for her father. Around this nucleus revolve a girl named Alice who has moved in with her grandmother next door after her own mother’s death; the Johnson women, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter who live together on the edge of town; and Reverend Lyle, his wife and their teenaged son, who have been sent out from Denver after some unnamed scandal in the congregation. The novel is composed of the intertwining narratives of these three families and the young girl, their stories echoing each other in moments of grief and regret and loss.
Balanced against life’s tragedies are life’s simple blessings, both contained in the interaction with others. In one of the quiet epiphanies of the book, Willa Johnson and her daughter Alene and Lorraine and Alice decide to cool off on an August afternoon by skinny-dipping in the cool water of a cattle-stock tank. Each of the women gently swears when she hits the surface and then adjusts to the temperature. The women even have a moment to teach Alice to swim: “When she began to sink they lifted her up, and after a while she was able to stay up and they stepped back and she lay out on the water, half-submerged, her blue eyes open to the blue sky.”
There is very little narrative tension in the move toward death. People come by to pay their last respects in moments awkward for both the giver and receiver. Memory and imagination parcel out the rest of the story, and it is in the reliving of his regrets and joys that Dad Lewis and friends and family come to life. Haunted by his estrangement from his son and the dim recollections of his own childhood, Dad looks for forgiveness where none can be found. Just so do all of the major characters seek some rounding off, some explanation for how things came to be this way, only to be frustrated by life’s infernal lack of clarity.
Benediction is a quiet book in many ways, which makes the few shocks in the plot all the more intense. Strikingly, nearly all of the transformative moments are tied to sex or the sexuality of the characters, and in other hands, this might have seemed more melodramatic or even sentimental. But Haruf writes with great assurance and grace and understanding of life in a small town, and the role that sex plays in relief of boredom or wanderlust or the simple desire for temptation. Haruf does not shy from the dark forces at play, even in such a paradise, or perhaps especially so. He writes in the high lonesome style, clipped and elegant, cognizant that, in the end, we are alone with all our ghosts, beloved and unforgiving, and that death comes with its rattling breath, and the living are left to offer that last blessing.
Keith Donohue is the author of The Stolen Child and two other novels.