Friday, April 05, 2013

What We're Reading: New Fiction

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

 Kent Haruf is the much respected author of Plainsong and Eventide, and like those previous novels the setting of Benediction is the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. Haruf is generally thought of as a “Western” writer, a classification that is associated, it would seem, primarily with the geographical settings of the stories, but frequently suggests as well an unadorned, if not austere, prose style. The vocabulary of the narration is simple, the speech of the characters is laconic, and their language is colloquial and often colorful. The danger of this style is that the writing, although it is intended to carry virtues of plainness, ordinary speech, and naturalness, is in many respects a style that is nostalgic and reconstructed. For many of us, the "style" of this backwater small world may have the feel of a museum piece. Yes, an author might want to place his story in the “ordinary” for the purpose of illuminating for us the small miracles and sustaining virtues of everyday life, but sometimes the ordinary is, well, just ordinary, as when a young orphaned girl taken out to lunch by an older pair of women who wish to befriend her is described eating her lunch, "The girl nodded and began to eat her French fries, picking them up one at a time and dipping the end in the ketchup and biting off the end and dipping it in again and eating the rest by small bites.” This is the way most people eat French fries; certainly there is nothing remarkable about this description, nor anything that gives us insight into the character or engages us in the story. The paradox that must be managed in employing such a style is that the reader must be made to feel that something is ordinary and yet still at the same time remarkable in some way. Haruf manages this most of the time, but there are instances when a rigorous devotion to the style seem a little silly. And what, we may wonder, is supposed to be the effect of a single sentence like this with all of its conjunctive construction?

They drove back home to the country once more and put
the groceries away in the kitchen and then went upstairs and
got out of their town clothes and put on thin cotton house-
dresses and lay down and napped in their separate rooms with
the windows open letting in the hot summer air and woke in the
afternoon and rinsed their faces at the bathroom sink and dabbed
water on the thin napes of their necks and returned downstairs
and later they ate their quiet supper and sat out in the yard in
lawn chairs and watched the sky color up and darken on the
flat wide low horizon.
Usually Haruf’s restraint and understatement, however, serve his major strengths as a writer. The story line is not sensational, and what drama there is does not feel manufactured. Benediction unfolds over the course of one summer and describes the last days of Dad Lewis, an elderly man who was the owner of Holt’s hardware store for most of his life and who is now dying of cancer. We learn of Dad Lewis’s history and the history of the cast of family and friends that surrounds him in his final days, personal stories that help us to understand how these individuals relate to Dad and to each other by showing us the significant life experiences that are the source of their longings, their strengths, and their empathy. The characters, rather than the story line, is what keeps us connected in Haruf’s novels, the sense we get of abiding in a community of people who are somehow like us, but who are also in ways better and maybe more stoic versions of ourselves. Haruf’s characters, whatever their flawed histories, are good people--not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a moral sense. They possess what in a bygone area was referred to as “moral earnestness.” What is essentially moving about Haruf’s stories is that these people do not seem to realize how good they are; they are filled with doubts about how they have acted, whether they have done the right thing, how they could have done better. The doubts seem integral to their goodness, and Benediction is a novel about how people of this sort of character may in some ways be able at last to reconcile themselves with the regret and doubt in their lives, how they might at last come to some measure of self-forgiveness. A plainness of style can make it possible for an author to call greater attention to the details that are telling and important, but the writer still must have the ability to know which details will be resonant, which are the ones that will convey to us what he wants us to know about character and meaning. Like a drawing, the picture can be made with a few lines, but the art is in knowing what lines will make the work come alive. Haruf has that instinct and art, and presents here a memorable cast of characters that help him tell us in Benediction an expansive and moving tale about our moral and emotional lives.

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