The adjectives that usually appear when Kent Haruf publishes a new novel will probably appear this month as Benediction, his latest story set on the open, treeless plains of eastern Colorado, is published. “Lovely,” “honest,” “graceful,” “spare,” the reviews tend to say. “Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and such humility?” Ron Charles asked the last time Haruf had a novel out, Eventide, in 2004.
It’s true that there is no one who writes like Haruf. A native of the Colorado plains, he inhabits the diction, cant, slang, and gruff, clipped phrasing of people from the rural plains so completely that his novels envelop you in their talk. Haruf doesn’t box their dialogue in quotes; he just lays it out, as in this plainspoken passage where a young couple approaches Reverend Lyle, in Holt, Haruf’s imagined, tiny Colorado town, to see about getting married. They want the ceremony to happen right then. Lyle asks the couple a bit about themselves:
Well, I wonder where you come from. How you met each other.
He comes from over by Phillips, the woman said. He grew up there. Didn’t you, Ronnie.
I was born there. I’ve been other places but I come back.
He works in a feedlot over there, riding pens. But he can do a lot of things.
I’ve done a fair number of things so far, he said.
He can fix anything you want fixed.
Haruf’s characters say a lot by what they leave unsaid, particularly his men, many of whom seem doubtful of the premise that conversation can be an enlightening thing. The McPheron brothers, embittered old cattle farmers who take in a pregnant high school girl who needs a home in Plainsong, learn to overcome their reluctance to talk and gain a lot of kindness in the bargain.
The wise, kind insight of Haruf’s previous novels are elements that have made him a best-selling writer. “When I first started writing, I wanted to put eastern Colorado on the literary map somehow,” Haruf says. “I wanted to be true to what I knew about.” Haruf left the plains, returned to teach at both the high school and college levels, and now lives with his wife in Salida, the kind of artistic, beautiful Colorado mountain town not found on the flat country he comes from. Haruf says he was “complimentary” about Holt when he started out, and he spent more time in his earlier novels describing the landscape of the plains, its unforgiving, mercurial weather and temperament.
But readers who have followed Haruf’s career will see that Benediction is darker than his previous books. On the first page, Dad Lewis, who’s owned the hardware store in Holt for a number of years, receives the news on a trip to the doctor in Denver that his cancer is serious. He asks his wife to drive them home. “I just want to look out at this country,” he says. “I won’t be coming out here again.”
Fatalistic and stern but trustworthy and respected by the people in Holt, Dad Lewis makes decisions about his demise that unleash revealing responses in his family and neighbors. Haruf lets Dad comb through his memories, which feel as vivid as the present-day action of the novel.
For readers not from small towns, who buy into the fallacy that rural lives are less eventful because there’s less to do in tiny towns, Benediction will be a revelation of incident. Drugs, sexual identity, infidelity, blackmail—supposedly big-city problems—emerge in the novel.
Haruf didn’t publish a novel until he was 41, and not for lack of trying. There’s a fondness for Holt in his earlier novels. But “the longer I’ve written about it, my attempt has been to make it appear to be every town,” he now says. “What happens there happens everywhere—pregnant teenagers, lonely old men and so on—and it became important to me to tell stories that happen every place.”
Benediction confronts thorny national tensions in a way his previous novels do not. Reverend Lyle, a thoughtful but querulous man, suggests to his congregation in Holt that maybe America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan shouldn’t be treated as enemies. Many of the church members are furious; the Reverend’s sermon induces a bitter animosity in the church, which everyone in town knows about. Haruf says he wanted to write about “the animosity in this country with people to one another and it certainly has to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But his canvas is larger than that: “If somebody takes that tack, if somebody decides to take the Gospel literally, he or she is going to run into trouble.” Haruf stresses that he’s not on “some kind of soapbox about it but that’s an expansion of what people are like in small towns and I wanted to suggest the variety of people in a small town.”
Haruf’s writing life has centered on one small town, but he had to get away from the Colorado plains to learn how to write about it. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early ’70s but got in only after he left his wife and toddler daughter in Colorado to move to Iowa and found work as a janitor at a retirement home. His family moved to Iowa, and they lived in a “drafty old farmhouse.” He would drop off stories at the office of the Workshop, and eventually, they let him in. In his fiction, though, he kept returning home. Eastern Colorado was “the geography I cared about most and what I remember most emphatically was that part of the world,” he says. “And I will probably continue to write about that place.”
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.