Benediction, Kent Haruf’s fifth novel, is the work of a master who defies analogy. I could tell you Haruf’s spare prose is like a honed, shining piece of wood, or an especially fine garment, or a well-made tool. Instead, I suggest you read all of Haruf’s work. I envy you the experience of reading him for the first time.
Haruf is reminiscent of Hemingway in that both men share a pared-down sensibility, going even so far as to avoid quotation marks. Both are writers of place: Hemingway had Michigan, Haruf, the fictional High Plains Colorado town of Holt. Both men write in the manner described by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, sticking with the “true simple declarative sentence”, eschewing “scrollwork” or “ornament”. Each addresses male honor, those behaviors making a man honorable, and those that do not.
Both prefer their honor quiet: a boasting man is not honorable, no matter his actions. For those partaking in the Hemingway-bashing currently popular in some quarters, remember his talents are indisputable. Discovering them in another writer is cause for happiness.
Benediction leaves behind the McPheron brothers of Plainsong and Eventide, introducing us another Holt resident, Dad Lewis, an elderly man just given a terminal cancer diagnosis. Summer has just begun. It will be Lewis’ last one.
Lewis’ wife, Mary, quickly becomes overwhelmed caring for Lewis and is hospitalized with exhaustion. At this, they call their daughter, Lorraine, who lives in Denver.
The Lewis family is close, but not without problems. Son Frank, a homosexual, severed all connections with his relatives long ago. He never made any effort to hide his sexuality in a small, small-minded town, and suffered for it. At home, his father could not understand it. Mary was willing to overlook it, preferring to remain in touch, while only Lorraine, of a younger generation, was truly accepting. Now Mary wants to locate Frank, reuniting the family a final time. Lorraine and Dad are against this idea.
Frank’s homosexuality exemplifies what makes Haruf great. He handles this sensitive subject with understated, moving prose. Even Lewis’ confusion is set out with dignity. Born to Nebraskan farmers in the early ‘20s, Lewis moved to Holt as a young man, bought the local hardware store, met and married Mary. He is not, by his own description, a sophisticated man. He does not despise Frank; he simply cannot understand his son.
An outwardly gruff man, Lewis adheres to a strict moral code. When he discovers an employee is stealing, he fires the man rather than report him to the police. He reasons the man’s children need their father. When longtime employees Rudy and Bob visit to go over the books, he refuses to repossess a freezer from a demented old woman. Instead, he writes it off and asks if somebody can be sent to help her.
Holt has always been populated by people caring one another in ways that can feel fantastical to more isolated readers. Benediction is no exception. There are longtime neighbors Berta May, Willa Johnson, and Willa’s daughter, Alene.
While little is said of Berta May, much is made of the arrival of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Alice. Alice’s mother died of breast cancer. Now the child draws the attention of the Johnson women and Lorraine, who lost a daughter of her own. The Johnson women to take Alice on outings, culminating in new clothing and a bicycle. The women need the girl, who is bewildered but polite. She is slightly more open with Lorraine, who knew her mother when both were children.
Minister Robert Lyle is another important if controversial Holt citizen. Lyle was sent from Denver—reposted—after preaching acceptance of homosexuality. His unshakable sense of innate morality will cause outrage in Holt, raising questions of religious faith without resolving them. Lyle’s wife and teenaged son, John Wesley, are furious with him. John Wesley’s rage will turn dangerously inward.
Like all of Haruf’s work, Benediction teeters between life’s beauties and heartbreaks; it’s difficult to say whether the moments of happiness outweigh the book’s overarching sadness. Time is marked by summer’s progression and Lewis’ worsening cancer As illness overtakes him, he sleeps more and eats less, spending what Anne Lamott, writing of her best friend Pammy’s death from cancer, calls the dying’s “big round hours.” He converses with loved ones both physically and psychically present, using the raw, honest vocabulary of the dying. These blunt conversations force the reader to realize that making peace with others at life’s end is not always possible.
Haruf is that rare writer—perhaps rare man—with a deep appreciation of women. He writes movingly of Mary’s desire to care for Lewis, despite the physical difficulties, and her overt grief at his impending death. Their lifelong love is clear. When Lorraine arrives from Denver, she is described as “a pretty woman in her mid-fifties with dark hair.” In a society where female beauty is linked to extreme youth, reading of a pretty 50-year-old is refreshing.
In a lovely scene, Willa, Alene, Lorraine, and Alice are picnicking on Willa’s land. The day is burningly hot, leading Alene to admit her childhood habit of cooling off in the cattle stock tank. Soon all four of them, ranging from age eight to mid-‘70s, are stripping and diving into the freezing water. In a lesser writer’s hands, this would be a moment of parody. Instead, Haruf seeks out each woman’s individual loveliness, even the aged Willa: “Her hair had come loose from its pins and was long and full and shiny…” When complimented about her hair, Willa admits she’s too vain about it.
Yet the joy of such moments is always leavened by deep unhappiness. Alene, a recently retired schoolteacher, has returned to Holt and her mother’s home. Never married, she was in love once; when it turned out badly, she retreated, feeling her chance at marital and sexual happiness was forever lost. Now she is miserably lonely, no longer a sexual being. Speaking with Willa, she says: “I don’t put out anything anymore for anyone to sense.”
Willa is a widow, long-acclimated to loneliness. Her words, intended to comfort, instead chill:
”You forget after a while. You start paying attention to your aches and pains. You think about a hip replacement. Your eyes fail you. You start thinking about death. You live more narrowly. You stop thinking about next month. You hope you don’t have to linger.”
Benediction’s emphasis on aging, death, and human relationships push material items aside. Although the novel is set in the recent past, no mention is made of computers, cell phones, even televisions. The Lewis family does not use their dishwasher. They endure the summer heat without interest in air conditioning. It isn’t parsimony that drives them: their focus is elsewhere.
The book closes with two deaths, neither unexpected: summer ends, and with it, Dad Lewis’ life. With his death a new life begins for Mary and Lorraine, a life Donald Hall, writing of wife Jane Kenyon’s death, called Without. As wife and daughter begin the hard work of mourning, Alice, the little girl next door, gets lost on her bicycle. Panic is added to grief until the girl returns that evening, having found her way home in the dark.