Out West with the 'precious ordinary'

Fiction • Haruf makes a Chandler-style visit to taut, small-town complexities.
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Kent Haruf works miracles in miniature. His new novel, Benediction, returns to the setting of previous works, the fictional town of Holt in eastern Colorado's High Plains. It's a one-streetlight-and-four-churches kind of village where most people know everyone else.

What Haruf makes of this patch of ground is magic. His Plainsong, in which two geezer farmers take in a cast-off pregnant teenager, showcased the author's precise, laconic prose and a worldview informed by both tough-minded realism and high-minded benevolence. People did strange, even terrible, things to one another, yet deserved forgiveness all the same.

No wonder that Plainsong was honored as a National Book Award finalist, and that its sequel, Eventide, garnered its share of critical acclaim. Haruf was a writer distant from coastal media spotlights — he lives in Colorado — yet capable of gripping readers by the throat without resorting to pretentious literary tricks.

On the first page of Benediction, we learn that Dad Lewis, the 77-year-old proprietor of Holt's hardware store, has been given a death sentence. His lung cancer is terminal. Typifying the regional stoicism, he refuses to complain, expects no special attention from his wife, Mary, but allows that in the time he has left he might indulge in a more expensive brand of beer.

Haruf's spare style has been likened to that of Raymond Carver. It's a prose powered almost entirely by nouns and verbs, and thus perfect for characters who ration out their speech as though words were expensive. Haruf's ordinary Coloradans, with their litanies of discontent, seem like distant cousins to Chekhov's aristocratic Russians. They have squandered their lives in pursuit of foolish choices.

"I'm going to die," one woman laments, "and not even have lived yet." Her aged mother's reply: "You forget after a while. ... You live more narrowly."

Though Dad Lewis is devoted to fairness and generosity in most respects, he couldn't stomach his son's homosexuality. That's why Frank hasn't been back home since he finished high school and isn't likely to pay his respects at his father's deathbed. Meanwhile, Dad and Mary's daughter, Lorraine, summoned from Denver, has been unable to find a man worthy of a lasting relationship. Her boyfriend is someone to be tolerated, at best, not cherished.

In Haruf's rendering, Holt's inhabitants must conform to local mores or face ostracism. Lorraine remembers the high school football players taunting Frank. Newcomers, like the Rev. Lyle and his family, are especially suspect. A liberal with more rigid principle than good sense ­— he's already been forced out of a pulpit in Denver — he preaches a sermon on "loving your enemies" even as Holt's young men are enlisting to battle Islamic terrorists. He'll soon be packed off himself.

That Benediction manages to avoid being a screed against small-town provincialism is a barometer of Haruf's artistry. He knows that all the bad stuff, though a necessary part of the story, doesn't cancel out the good. The author is more wise paterfamilias than hanging judge.

Benediction spreads its blessing over the entire town. Haruf isn't interested in evil so much as the frailties that defeat us — loneliness, a failure to connect with one another, the lack of courage to change. Dad Lewis may be unable to deal with his son's sexual orientation, but he did try to do the right thing in the wake of firing a hardware clerk for stealing from the till. After the man commits suicide, Dad writes checks to help support the widow and children.

Despite chronicling so much disappointment and worse, this novel is anything but a downer. Haruf makes us admire his characters' ability not only to carry on but also to enjoy simple pleasures. A swing on the porch, a drink of iced tea, a ride in the country — all these take on the grandeur of sacraments.

Occasionally, the author elevates the narrative beyond realism to higher symbolic ground. In one such scene, the aged mother and her daughter invite Lorraine and her 8-year-old neighbor Alice to their farm for a "tea," which ends up involving a lot of wine drinking. The summer day is hot, and the stock tank out back where the cattle drink beckons. Before you know it, all of these females have shed their clothes and are cooling off in the tank.

It's a ritual of bonding across age differences; it's a rite of feminine solidarity; it's a baptism making new life possible. Unlike one teen's sneer at another — "You're dreaming backward" — these people are dreaming forward.

The Rev. Lyle, a spokesman for transcendence despite his woes, takes to wandering Holt's streets at night, gazing into the lighted windows of houses. He's not a peeping Tom, he explains to a cop. He's just amazed by "the precious ordinary." This, of course, is the author's credo as well.