One of the storylines in Kent Harufs mournful novel Benediction deals with a teen who hates his surroundings. Dragged against his will to his familys new home in rural Colorado, he longs for the life he once enjoyed in Denver.
By KEVIN CANFIELD
Special to The Star
It was different, John Wesley explains to Genevieve, a local girl he has started dating. Theres so much to do. We went out at night and talked and saw people. Ate in the cafes. We laughed and laughed. We hung out at the malls.
Genevieve isnt having any of it. Youre dreaming backward, she tells him.
Hes not the only one. In Benediction, everyone longs for another time.
An author who pens this kind of book one in which each major character, from a preadolescent girl to a cancer-stricken old man, is haunted by the past is asking for trouble. Many lesser novelists have taken similar material and transformed it into melodramatic drivel.
But Haruf, a National Book Award winner for his 1999 novel Plainsong, is a genius of understatement. He writes lean and circumspect prose. He shuns the cheap and easy sentimentality that can creep into even the most austere literary fiction. He tugs at the readers heartstrings, but in the subtlest way possible. He never tries too hard, and Benediction is all the more moving for Harufs zen-like composure.
Set, like much of Harufs previous work, in fictional Holt County, Colo., the novels central figure is the man they call Dad Lewis. Hes a community pillar, a longtime hardware store owner whos in his late 70s. He has terminal cancer.
As he enters his final weeks, Dads wife, Mary, is at his side. Their adult daughter Lorraine has joined them, her return to the small town where she grew up heralded in the church bulletin.
But Frank, her brother, isnt around. Dad never came to terms with Franks homosexuality, and the falling-out is his lifes great regret.
The novels action takes place in a small orbit around the Lewis home. Next door lives Berta May, an old-timer who has recently taken in her orphaned granddaughter, 8-year-old Alice.
The little girl and Dad quickly realize they have something in common.
Is it in your breast? Alice asks Dad after learning that he has cancer. Thats where my mother had hers.
I got it all over me, he replies.
Lorraine and two other women, a widow named Willa and her grown daughter Alene, quickly take to the child. Each has lost something, and to them Alice is innocence personified. They dote on her every chance they get, but their good deeds might have unintended consequences.
Meanwhile, a bit of gossip has greeted the arrival of Rob Lyle and his family. Rob is to serve as the new reverend at Community Church, and he seems to have left his last congregation after a dust-up over his support for a colleague who revealed that he was gay.
Reverend Lyle comes to town aiming to repair his fractured marriage and appease his increasingly unhappy son John Wesley. But the reverends outspokenness he devotes a sermon to questioning American foreign policy will land him a lead role in another scandal.
These and a handful of other storylines converge in ways that are gratifying and heartbreaking, but Haruf never forces things. His sentences are immaculate and exemplary, and often quite simple. There is not an unnecessary adjective in these pages.
Here, for instance, Haruf explains what lies ahead for Dad: He sat and drank the beer and held his wifes hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. Thats what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.
Haruf isnt focused on weaving a tricky plot, and hes not troubled by the notion that its a novelists duty to resolve every storyline. In Benediction, hes most interested in his characters generosity of spirit hes trying to understand where grace comes from and why it so often eludes us.
Take Dad Lewis. After learning that a customer who owes his store money cant afford to pay, he tears up the bill. And when he realizes that he has been too harsh in his dealings with an ex-employee who stole from him, he tries to make things right. Yet he has never accepted his own son for who he is.
Did Dad live a life of grace? Yes and no, which is about the best that can be said for any of us.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.