“Benediction,” Kent Haruf’s new novel, is spare and unencumbered. It is the story of Dad Lewis, age 77, suffering from terminal cancer. Dad owns a hardware store and lives with his care-worn wife, Mary in the fictional city of Holt, Colo.
Haruf is an American writer whose great skill is in describing the plain ways of people who live in small places.
The son of a minister, Haruf has won prizes that include the Wallace Stegner Award for his earlier novels “Eventide” and “Plainsong.”
Dad Lewis is determined to make the best of what remains of life. He says to Mary, “I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that.”
His daughter Lorraine has taken off work in Denver and come home to care for him on the high plains of Colorado.
Dad and Mary’s son Frank, three years younger than Lorraine, disappeared from town years ago.
On her return Lorraine tells Dad and Mary that Frank is gay. He’s been living in Denver and later in California, working as a waiter, cab driver, whatever job he can find.
Dad and Mary have been quietly aware of Frank’s homosexuality since he’s been a teenager, and they have never come to terms with it.
A pivotal character in “Benediction,” the Reverend Lyle, newly appointed to the Community Church in town, sets the novel’s theme.
A young couple, Laurie Wheeler and Ronald Dean Walker, come to Lyle and ask to be married. The reverend asks them why they love each other, and they explain simply and beautifully.
Then he gives them an affirmation. “If you have love you can live in this world in a true way and if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all.”
That’s it. That’s what “Benediction” is about, except.… Except that there’s a war going on between good and evil that we recognize as part of our nature. This is what makes “Benediction” a universal story, not a hometown tale.
Take the Reverend Lyle, who believes the Sermon on the Mount, literally. The evening of the wedding ceremony, Lyle tells his wife and son about it over dinner. Lyle’s son, John Wesley, who becomes enmeshed in a sexual affair, can’t stand his preacher father.
Later, the teenager says to his mother as she reads in bed, “Why does he have to talk to us like that … he sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral … He’s full of s…, Mom.”
This is a continuation of a downward spiral for the minister, who we learn had been relieved of his duties at church in another small town for preaching the Bible too literally.
Yet Lyle clings to the gospel message, looking for what he calls “the precious ordinary” of life, “the sweet kindness of one person to another.”
There are flashbacks to earlier times in the novel that enrich Haruf’s story telling.
We learn that Dad Lewis fired Clayton, a young clerk at the hardware store years earlier, for stealing. Dad has Clayton sign a statement acknowledging his theft and makes him move out of town with his wife and two young children.
Two months later, Clayton hangs himself in Denver. This episode fills Dad with regret. Dad makes it up to Clayton’s wife over years by paying her rent money and giving her a subsistence to live on.
Or consider an elderly widow named Willa and her middle-aged daughter, Alene, who live in Holt.
Alene is home from teaching in a nearby small town, loveless and disappointed. Listen to what they say. “What are you thinking, dear?” Willa asks. “You know, you can stay with me,” she adds.
Alene says, “I don’t give off any intimation of sex or even the possibility of it anymore …. I mean that quality, that condition of being alive and interested and vital and active and passionate in my life. Oh I hate this. I’m going to die and not even have lived yet.”
We find out in a flashback that Alene has lost her job because of an affair with a school principal in her district.
Willa says to Alene, “You’ll get better dear … You forget after a while.”
Willa says what a mother must, but she’s not convincing Alene. What does eventually convince Alene is the abiding love of Willa for everyone in town. Willa’s husband has been dead more than 30 years and she showers the recollection of her love for him on those still alive.
There is beautiful writing in “Benediction.”
Take these lines of Dad Lewis’ mother. She appears to him as he dreams, near death. He reflects about his mother, “The silent woman. The uncomplaining, unexpressed uninflected woman. Gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her Sunday dress, old pearl-colored gabardine buttoned to the neck, shiny in places. Too loose, irreplaceable, out of poverty. And her long thin hands, bony red hands, and red bony wrists. With the scrap of battered adhesive tape wrapped around as a guard holding the worn-out wedding ring on her bony finger.”
In the stories of Dad Lewis’ family, his wife, Mary, Lorraine and Frank, the grown children, and others in town, even the men who work at Dad’s store, regret the death of their beloved figure. Dad Lewis has made right his errors in life. And this ignites the pale embers of love in those who remain.
The Reverend Lyle’s message is the benediction of the novel, “… if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all.”
“Benediction” itself is a blessing.
By Kent Haruf
258 pages, $25.95
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of fiction for the Buffalo News.