April 7, 2013

Kent Haruf’s latest High Plains novel finds beauty in everyday lives

"Benediction" by Kent Haruf (Knopf, 258 pages, $25.95)

"Benediction" by Kent Haruf (Knopf, 258 pages, $25.95)

Rob Lyle, one of the characters in “Benediction,” is stopped by police one night during a walk around town after someone complains that he’s looking in the window of a house. Lyle, a preacher, explains to the police officer that he was simply observing "the precious ordinary."

Whether it’s something people look for in others to recapture the sense in their own lives, or the idea that to be precious, something need not be extraordinary, “the precious ordinary” perfectly captures Kent Haruf’s work. His novels, set in the fictional High Plains town of Holt, Colo., are the stories of ordinary people living largely ordinary lives. The books are quiet, and intimate, and beautiful. “Benediction” is not a sequel or prequel (though the old farmer brothers at the center of “Plainsong” are referred to in passing), but simply shares a setting with the rest of Haruf’s work.

The focal point of "Benediction" is the Lewis house, where “Dad” and Mary Lewis have made their home for decades. Dad, who owns the local hardware store, is dying of cancer — he knows he doesn’t have much time left. His daughter, Lorraine, has come home, but his son, Frank, left as a teenager and hasn’t been back since. The question of whether Frank will somehow make it back despite no one being in touch with him hangs over the house, but it doesn’t dominate the novel. It, like so much of life, simply is the situation. Whether Dad will warm to Lorraine’s boyfriend is not in question. “I’m too far down the road to soften my words now,” he tells her, and she knows his objections aren’t baseless.

While most of the story takes place in and around the Lewises’ house, other Holt residents have their stories told as well. The Lewises’ neighbor, Berta May, is raising her young granddaughter Alice after the death of her daughter. The “Johnson women,” an elderly mother and her retirement-aged daughter, delicately try to help Berta May by taking Alice out to lunch and shopping; they even buy her a bicycle. But we can tell it’s not just to help Berta May — Alene Johnson is feeling some emptiness in her own life, having never married or had children.

And the Lyle family has its own problems: recent arrivals to Holt after unspecified unpleasantness at Rob Lyle’s previous ministerial posting, they find it hard to fit in. Mrs. Lyle just wants to go back to Denver, and John Wesley gets heavily involved with a girl his parents would describe as “fast.” Rob Lyle manages to alienate most of his congregation with a single sermon, though a few people, including the Lewises and the Johnsons, understand his message and stand by him. He’s an enigmatic character and one who’s not fleshed out much in this story — it’s not his story — but would be a great central character in perhaps the next Haruf novel.

“Benediction” isn’t what we’d call plot-driven; it’s more focused on day-to-day life. Small actions tell bigger stories, though.

“It was my life I was watching there,” Dad tells Mary after a trip to the hardware store he once ran, a visit that left him in tears. “That little bit of commerce between me and another fellow on a summer morning at the front counter. Exchanging a few words. Just that. And it wasn’t nothing at all.”

“No, that’s not right, it wasn’t either nothing,” Mary replies. “It was everything.”

It’s scenes like these that give us a sense of who these people are, through what they say and how they feel, through what they do and where they live.

Holt itself, though fictional, seems so real that you feel you’d recognize it if you ever drove through town: the few shops along Main Street, the modest houses that range from fairly nice to fairly shabby, the highway that in a couple of hours’ time gets you to the big city, the churches, the barns, the few street lights bringing evening light to a hot August night.

And the people who live there are people, ordinary people. With clear, clean, unsentimental prose, Haruf shows us the precious in their ordinary lives.

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