Benediction -- Kent Haruf (Knopf)
A benediction is a cry for divine help. It is an appropriate title for Kent Haruf’s new novel, given that the novel itself seems to cry out for creative inspiration. While it is very technically proficient and occasionally poignant, the author’s inability to avoid lapsing into threadbare clichés ultimately prevents “Benediction” from making a lasting impact.
The relatively slim volume is brimming with folks badly in need of a pick-me-up. The premise of “Benediction” will feel familiar to anyone who has read a Kent Haruf novel. Like all of his works, it is set in Holt, CO, a tiny, fictitious mountain town where everyone knows everyone, and Denver seems a million miles away. The nucleus of “Benediction” is the Lewis house, where general store proprietor Dad Lewis is dying. The imminence of his demise is announced on page one. The novel proceeds to follow the lives of those close to Dad: his wife Mary, his middle-aged daughter Lorraine, his neighbors the Johnson women, his priest Lyle, and Lyle’s son. As Dad circles the proverbial drain, their stories revolve around his own. And while Dad may be the only one among them with a death sentence, each is unmistakably headed for a fall.
The novel is written in third person, but it feels almost disingenuous to imply that the narrator is any sort of person at all: Haruf’s narration is remarkably bare. Truly, this is meant as a compliment. Eschewing poetical frills and abstractions, Haruf’s business is to paint a clear picture of what occurs, and he begins the novel starkly: “When the test came back the nurse called them into the examination room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.” How characters feel about one another is expressed almost exclusively through their actions. Early in the novel, Haruf describes an interaction between Dad and Mary: “She bent forward and kissed him on the head and wrapped her arm around his shoulders and raised up his old age-spotted hand affectionately and held it to her cheek for a long time.” With no needless internal narration, Haruf tells us all we need to know about the nature of their relationship. Through prose in this vein, “Benediction,” at its best, provides a perspective that is simple, but startlingly honest and poignant. The preacher Lyle says to a pair of newlyweds:
“Love is the most important part of life, isn’t it. 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. Love is patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering. I hope you may love each other all your days of life together. And I hope you may have a great many years of those days.”
There’s nothing really novel about this passage; it’s a little corny, for sure. But given Haruf’s no-frills approach to solemn issues of death and estrangement, such scenes are cathartic when he applies his masterful simplicity to what is good in life.
And yet, “Benediction” is the literary equivalent of porridge. It could be considered a staple—not to mention wholesome—but it does not bring anything new to the proverbial table. While “Benediction” tackles complex issues—death, homophobia, romantic failure, the fragility of human relationships—and Haruf handles each of these topics well, he approaches each from an angle that is all too familiar. When the struggles of Haruf’s characters come to a head, one would be hard-pressed to envision a more hackneyed way for them to do so. The wife confronts the mistress in the supermarket. The feminine high school boy is beat up by jocks in the locker room. And how does his father discover his son’s secret? He walks in on him dressed in his sister’s clothing. These scenes are written with the same level of technical skill that Haruf sustains throughout “Benediction,” but because of their sheer familiarity, such scenes will elicit groans rather than shock. “The woman fell back in her high-heeled shoes and good dress against the stand of oranges.…The woman rushed at Alene and tried now to hit her with her purse, swinging it.” This is nice, clean writing, and the sentiment expressed rings true, but such domestic jealousy and conflict seem trite when not qualified by anything else. The most powerful moment of the novel comes when Haruf turns a stale circumstance on its ear. A character is faced with a horrible and shocking irony—when you read it, you feel your eyes grow wide. If “Benediction” contained a dozen moments like this one, it would be a remarkable book. Unfortunately, this is a brilliant, brutal outlier. Its strength cannot help but throw the triteness of other passages into relief.
Haruf’s superb prose is further undercut by facile dialogue. In Holt and its environs, there appear to be two kinds of people: those who will not admit to feeling anything, and those who are eager to air the most intimate details of their private lives. What’s more, Holtians who are willing to speak their minds all seem to do so in the same fashion. It’s as if, in a bid to save their breath in the high altitude, they have developed a propensity toward clipped, extraordinarily frank sentences. The Johnson women, Willa, and Alene begin to engage in a dialogue about Alene’s lack of a love life:
“‘I had my chance and I lost it,’ [said Alene.]‘What do you mean?’ [said Willa.]‘My chance at love and a life.’ ‘That wasn’t much of a chance, I don’t think.’ ‘It was.’”
Haruf does achieve a sort of balance with this kind of dialogue, in that his spare prose is mimicked in his characters’ speech, but it’s hard to get past the fact that people just do not talk like this. If the dialogue were more believable and the situations less redolent of déja vu, then “Benediction” might be worth the trip out West to Colorado. As it is, “Benediction” is less of a cry and more of a whimper.
—Staff writer Emma R. Adler can be reached at email@example.com.